Robo-Rubio Upgrade Too Late?

Faust Company Issue 203

Lisa Ipswich @lipswich

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Robo-Rubio has proven that he is ready for the big leagues.

But is it already too late?

An aide close to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed that the original design team at Reblican Establishment Enterprises had been fired after the android suffered an apparent breakdown during the crucial February debate.

The writing was on the wall: it was time to call in the big guns.

Olaf Erickson, of Lund, Sweden, remembers that he was watching the National Hurling Championship when he received the call:

“It was Mitch [McConnell]. He’d just pulled the plug on the American programmers and was looking abroad. Somehow he got wind of my team.”

Erickson, the world’s leading expert on simulacrum design, wasn’t surprised to hear that Robo-Rubio had broken down during the debate.

“Trumps nonsequiturs, his logical fallacies and boorish manner would distress the protocols of even the most sophisticated robots,” Erickson explained. “Only my design team can write the proper algorithms to weather the hot air of a gasbag like Donald Trump.”

Anit Chowdhury, of Lahore, Pakistan, the team’s lead algorithm designer chimed in: “Robo-Rubio required a whole new level of sophistication. Gone are the days of the the ‘aw shucks’ congeniality protocols, for example, of the Ronald Reagan model, which, quite frankly, a chimpanzee could have written.”

Lead behavioralist, Yuri Gregorovich, or Kiev, explained that he had inculcated 110 communicative gestures of a male Silverback gorilla into the Robo-Rubio’s motherboard to help the android interpret Trump’s bizarre body language.

Gregorovich was pleased that after extensive coaching Robo-Rubio now behaved: “…like an anal retentive prick with severe Aspergers. You’ll also notice that when Robo-Rubio gets caught in a feedback loop, he repeatedly accuses Donald Trump of repeating himself until he can reboot.”

Though Robo-Rubio’s performance has improved thanks to the hard work of these H1-B visa holders, there is worry at Republican Establishment Enterprises that it may be too late.

“We turned up his vitriol and basically obliterated his common sense protocols,” Gregorovich said. “But the average Republican voter still perceives Robo-Rubio as aloof and over-educated.”

“Mitch wanted me to turn his rhetoric down to Third Grade level,” Erikson said. “But we couldn’t get any lower. Mitch worries that Robo-Rubio is still more articulate than Trump, but there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

The truth is a hard pill to swallow:

Despite Robo-Rubio’s upgrades, after Super Tuesday’s disaster the Republican Establishment android may be destined for the scrap pile.

This post is SATIRE.

Thanks to Bill Draheim for providing the photography. You can find more of his visual art at billdraheim.com

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Where I’ve Been Hiding: Pu`uhonua

It often seems that universally writers talk about two conflicting aspects of the work.

1) Writing is work. No amount of fantasizing will get you to the finish line. Te-Nahisi Coates describes writing as an act of physical courage, and the ultimate product of your labor? Passable at best.

2) The lengthy periods of writer’s block.

Out of one side of the mouth comes the old admonishment: “There is nothing to writing! All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” From the other side, the admission that lack of inspiration or confidence can take a writer’s voice for days, sometimes even years.

For three months, I have not posted anything to this blog. But fortunately this is not because of writer’s block. I have been writing. And the project that took all my efforts in the months of May and June and that kept me silent in this medium was a screenplay, the conception and execution of which, like most spates of honest work, took up far more time and energy than I had initially provided for.

A few years ago I wrote, co-produced and worked as script supervisor on a short film shot here in Honolulu entitled John E. Dirt. It was a great month. An absolute hoot.

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In order to accomplish the project, we called upon friends, acquaintances and family members. We also had the good fortune to work with industry professionals that the director, Bill Draheim, had met working on movies and in television here in Hawaii.

I plan to tell more about this ambitious vanity project in the future, but the reason I bring it up now is because one of Bill’s friend from Hawaii 50, electrician and photographer Hesham Metwally, showed up towards the end to help out. He happened to be looking for a writer.

In the final shot, Hesham lit a spliff and waved it in the dusty air of the third-story floor we had built our set on, its smoke mingling that coming from the prop cigarettes that a villainous roadie, played by J.T. Rowland, blows into the face of our suffering rock star, John E. Dirt. Bill let the spliff-waving stand. We were ready for a party.

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I didn’t hear from Hesham for two years. Then one day, while slogging through another day at my permanent-adjunct teaching position at Hawaii Tokai International College, I got a call out of the blue. It was Hesham. He wanted to discuss a project.

When we met for a coffee, Hesham right away went through the endless frustration of self-styled writers who “loved the project” and were “very excited about it” but invariably evaporated when pressed. Perhaps they were all of that most common genus of writer: the one who doesn’t actually write. But there were other reasons he encountered affable dismissal, which I will go into later.

“Everyone thinks they’re a writer until they face the blank page,” I must have told him, or something along those lines. My way of cluing him into the reality of how difficult it is to write. “So what is the story,” I asked him.

He lowered his voice conspiratorially: “Have you heard of the ‘The City of Refuge’?”

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Here a little backstory is required. I’ve lived in Hawaii for close to twenty years. I arrived in late 1997 hot on the heels of my college sweetheart, a girl I could not live without–at least for the next ten years. Her family sat squarely at the overlap of various progressive political movements: her mother was a self-proclaimed Communist, her father, a Hawaiian nationalist. I was deeply in love and still reeling from the existential shellacking my studies as a political scientist undergrad at a small liberal arts college had. My white middle class upbringing seemed paltry and shallow compared to the indigenous valley community she came from.

I have since matured a bit and have a less sanguine view of where she comes from and a more generous view of where I come from, but at the time, callow youth being what it is, I leapt into the struggle hook line and sinker.

In sum, I became involved in activism. I met many brilliant people and more than a few eccentrics. The occasional cracked pot hardly stuck out among the whistle blowers; sometimes, they are one and the same!

My twenties unfolded, mystically and haphazardly, a harrowing and psychological decade. I disappeared from my old life, sinking into a sort of stuporous political zealotry, reminders of which still flare up in my writing, my Facebook posts, and the occasional bar stool debate like malaria or a cold sore.

At the end, I was a single, unemployed father. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: “So it goes.”

In any case, the upshot was that of course I had heard of the ‘City of Refuge’, or Pu`uhonua as it is called in the Hawaiian language. This is a place, usually fairly remote from other communities, where a person can take refuge if they had had the bad luck of being accused of breaking one of the strict laws, or kapu, that regimented life in ancient Hawaii.

Hesham had heard of the place (really many places, as each island was said to have one or more of the refuges) years ago and come up with an adventure idea so obvious that on hearing it, I couldn’t help but wonder why no one had thought of it before.

A young man and woman fall in love. A jealous rival frames the young man who is then accused of breaking the kapu. His only recourse is to flee to the City of Refuge!

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Now, the idea is admittedly brilliant in its simplicity and I have high hopes for the project, but just allow me one quick quibble as a writer who has been approached with ideas before.

So after Hesham has told me the skeleton of the plot, I ask him: “Well, what happens on the way to the Pu`uhonua?

“He escapes.”

“Yeah, but what happens in his escape? That’s the movie, bro.” I tell him.

In cinema-speak, what Hesham hadn’t thought about yet was what is known as Act II. Act II It is the longest part of the movie, doubly so. It is the part when the movie fizzles or sizzles. It is the part where you actualize the brilliant concept you’ve established in Act I, also known as the introduction, and work up to the climax that wraps everything up in Act III.

For those of you who don’t write, please keep it in mind that success lies in the execution.

Act II, that’s the movie, bro.

Krapp’s Last Email Part 3

Everything else disappeared.

Krapp squeezed his thumb and forefinger. The screen collapsed onto the single email.

He felt somehow akin to this single message, floating in the aether. Humanity may no longer be alone among the stars, but Krapp was. Here, at the end of a long uneventful life, which had been interrupted far too briefly by the tonic effervescence of his wife, Bianca, one final message awaited him. Was it a promotional, sent from that unknown country wherein time and space were one? Or an advertisement by some enterprising theoretical business man selling negative-space real estate?

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Krapp shivered. Perhaps it was a message from God himself, summoning him home in Courier Font. How many times had he taken the Lord’s name in vain in the last seventy years? What if God had a Digital Interface System, one that allowed him to hear every black oath that had ever been uttered using of His name.

Well, if that was the case then Krapp wouldn’t waste any more time. If now was his moment of truth, he would meet it with dignity, not dither and prevaricate, wasting months and years when now was his time. He had heard tales of old men and women who had become trapped on the Internet. They were carted away insensate, still attached to their devices. One rabbit hole too many. One message more.

He let the white finger linger atop the envelope. Its summary appeared.

“DO NOT DELETE this message. Our Dinosaurian resear…” That was all the box would allow.

Krapp cursed silently. That had done nothing to allay his curiosity!

That last word: was it “research” or “researchers”? And if the former did it mean research performed on the Dino-Clones or by them? It was amazing how the smallest words could make a world of difference.

Everybody knew of the Dino-Clone Corps. They were the finest peace-keepers the Federation had at its disposal. Or so President Putin maintained. Krapp himself remembered with revulsion the televised dispensation of citizenship to the first Dino-Clone solider, directly after the public implantation of an explosive near its carotid artery. The beast had been dressed in khaki fatigues. A hole had been punched through the rear seam to make room for its tail, which twitched expressively.

What a monstrosity. Just thinking about it….

A pop-up appeared on the interface’s edge, warning him that: “Increased excitement will result in defecation in approximately two minutes.”

The equipment with which he gazed upon the virtual world also peered into him. Two minutes and counting. Should he disengage so he didn’t shit his shorts accidentally or soldier on?

That was the problem with analytics and substantiation: knowing something was going to happen hastened its onset. Theologians, theoreticians and even economists had argued over this conundrum, but for Krapp probability mechanics no longer entertained him as they once had. In fact the idea of taking a good shit spurred on by adrenal impulse was much more exciting.

“What the F*ck,” he thought, and then speaking aloud. “Open. Message.”

He read the first lines: “President Vladimir Pushkin is pleading with you! Second Lady JeongSook Pushkin is begging you! We don’t know what else to do to get you to pay attention. THE BOMB HAS DROPPED!”

Not quite yet, Krapp thought glibly.

“In 2190, the Galactic Federation sent a team of DinoClonian researchers on a one-hundred year journey to Sagittarius A*.”

One hundred years ago? That was impossible. They had only been in existence for maybe twenty years. He read on.

“…we know your time is precious and we certainly don’t want to bore you with science or a lengthy explanation of Einsteinium relativity. Suffice to say that the fact that the research ship was moving towards the center of the solar system has meant that their message of warning, sent to their time, has been intercepted in ours! 100% of scientists agree with their findings. What they’ve discovered will change….”

Alright already! Krapp thought. Cut to the chase. He immediately scrolled down to the bottom of the message.

“…the END!”

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Well, that tore it. He had gone right past the important part!

Though his bladder cried out, and his ass, now numb, harbored a burgeoning payload, he had to know what the Dino-Clone research team had discovered.

He scrolled upwards until he found some words in bold letters: “…An Anti-Matter Entity has lain dormant in the nebular cradle of Sagittarius A* for eons. Their presence has awakened it and now it is growing with astounding speed, gobbling up nearby matter in its infant voracity. Scientists are not sure whether it will develop consciousness before reaching the Earth or even whether it is capable of reasoning as we humans understand it, but what we do know is we cannot wait to find out! Everything we know and cherish will be devoured in a matter of millennia!

“Will it really take the end of the world for you to chip in?

“Donate now to our humanity preservation pod, an ambitious project to digitally record the annals of human knowledge, from the works of Beethoven to Bieber, Sigmund Freud to Tony Robbins. You have our personal guarantee that somewhere in that good night, intelligent beings will intercept the preservation pod and put paid our fears of Universal obsolescence!

“A simple donation of §200 will ensure your name is added to the Virtual Ark. Humanity will be remembered. And you will too for this low, low price!”

So that was it. Everything was going to end in a few thousand years. Strangely, the first thing Krapp wondered was when people would stop having children. Would it be this generation or the next or a hundred years hence? He was glad now that he and his wife hadn’t had children. Not for the lack of trying, but he had met Bianca too late. He’d hummed and hawed as usual, and she had told him not having children was alright with her. He’d gotten her a Shin Hua proxy-dog instead. It’s astro-fur had been preternaturally smooth. That’s what the advert had called it: “preternatural fur.” Bianca used to sit with it on her lap, caressing the ridges of its face, those charming flaps of skin that hung in folds.

Still, he could have tried harder. He should have tried harder. What the hell, he thought, two hundred Bucks to get a name on the ledger. Why not?

He pressed the link and typed in—his hands always shook so much these days— Bianca Krapp.

They hadn’t been able to find her in the snow. Maybe someday they would find her in the stars.

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“Jury Selection” going to JukePop

Ace artist and graphic designer, Ian Webster of Hazard-County Illustration, has taken one of Bill Draheim‘s photographic works and redone it as the cover for my speculative fiction piece “Jury Selection.”

Cover Varieties Final

The intention was to release the story on JukePop, a curator-site for serialized fiction, in order to see what effect it may have and what the benefits might be–if any.

The first part of the process has been completed: Acceptance. As of this morning, I have submitted the story.

The Terms and Agreements contained this monster clause, which means I have granted JukePop:

“irrevocable, perpetual, worldwide, royalty-free, sublicensable, transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, publish, publicly perform, publicly display, and commercialize (in multiple forms) on the Website (including on JukePop mobile apps) the applicable Content.”

Zoiks! Well, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” as the old saying goes. JukePop itself claims no ownership of the work, and one of its selling points is that fact that writers have gone on to put their collections in eBook form that is then sold to an already established fan base.

Here is a link to the story on JukePop and here is a link to an article helping readers figure out how to navigate and negotiate this new (dare I say: revolutionary) format for fiction.

Thanks in advance for the support!

Krapp’s Last Email Part 2

Scratch that. One: a message from Sagittarius A*.

It had to be a mistake. Everyone knew there was nothing there but a black hole pulling at the  starry fabric. It was the center of the solar system, for crying out loud.

Yet, there it was. A single, solitary bright point of light indicating that a message “for his eyes only” had come from that most improbable of locations. Despite himself Krapp’s interest was piqued. He loved a good mystery. Maybe it was a Trojan horse; some crackpot organization or hacker syndicate had faked the message so that a curious recipient—more credulous and naïve than Krapp, of course, and unable to resist the temptation—would open it. Some older citizen not used to receiving such incredible messages.

Well, Krapp hadn’t been born yesterday. He wouldn’t fall for such shenanigans. The message would remain closed.

For now.

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Krapp decided first to get rid of any messages concerning extraterrestrials, especially those pesky Andromedans. It wasn’t that he was a xenophobe. Some of his best friends were aliens. Back when he had had friends, before he had become a social shut-in just as his wife had warned. But really, what was out there for an old fellow like him these days? Nothing but sin and debauchery, where were the values he had grown up with? When a man had only two or three wives his whole life?

Oh stop it, you old fool. He told himself.

“Promotions/social: xenons.” He commanded, then: “Andromedans.”

The array changed and Krapp plunged down the rabbit hole.

As usual Faux News had the most ground-breaking up to the micro-second news. Quite a few of their messages purported to provide incontrovertible, irrefutable evidence that President Pushkin had been kidnapped by the Andromedan Intelligence Agency. Krapp knew he should just erase all these, but…. One message opened a video feed of President Pushkin with a sackcloth over his head, was being forced into a spaceship! Another message contained a link to an article written by an well known vegetable clone expert claiming that President Pushkin had been grown in a vat on the prison-planet, Andromeda IX!

It only got worse.

The thing that claimed to be President Pushkin had felt the political pressure to prove he was the real, and had released his entire genomic helix in order to quiet the accusations, but the Faux News pundits reminded readers like Krapp that those things could easily be faked.

Krapp shook his head. What should he do? He had promised himself he would just delete these damn messages and be done with it, but as a citizen of the United Countries of America, he felt conscribed to ascertain whether his homeland was being ruled by an alien clone or just a naturalized Russian centenarian!

He took a deep breath, and once more, duty triumphed over common sense.

“Promotions: Andromedans/Interstellar.”

A few lights twinkled at the fringes of the Milky Way. He brushed his fingertips across their virtual vellum. Golden boxes appeared containing truncated synopses.

“Do no delete—this messa….”

“This is Magnus Magnuson of Faux Ne….”

“Ignore this message at your own per….”

“The real President Pushkin needs your hel….”

Krapp paused tremulously at the last. The ‘real’ President Pushkin. Was this evidence at last of his duplicity? There was only one way to find out.

He highlighted the message and tapped it two times.

The interface went dark. Somber strings thrummed. In the far corner of the screen a distant planet drew closer. A chorus chimed and the music rose in crescendo as the orb, whorled with white clouds and glossy blue seas grew ever nearer until suddenly—

Silence, broken by a single voice: “Andromeda XIV. That is what we in the Galactic Federation call this bright jewel at the edge of Federation space.”

The voice was vaguely familiar. Wait… was it that Pan-Bollywood actor, the one who had begun his career on Big Baba? Krapp could not for the life of him remember his name.

“But to the natives, the name of this green gem loosely translates as ‘Eden’. Once a barely understood planet at the edge of the galaxy, Eden now forms the beach head against Andromedan aggression!”

And then Krapp was in virtual free fall, plummeting through the clouds to the planet’s surface. His stomach lurched, tricked by the P.O.V.

The voice continued: “Former Secretary of Galaxy, Priscilla Pinkerton, has lived among the natives for many years. She knows the real President Pushkin, the generous and big-hearted man that he is, and in his glorious name she is begging you, she is pleading with you….”

Krapp leveled off perhaps a hundred feet above an alien village. Just outside, a spacecraft landed. A dock swung down disgorging a platoon of alien warriors. They raced towards the peaceful settlement, firing purple ray guns at the fleeing villagers.

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“DO NOT DELETE THIS MESSAGE. The Edenians depend entirely on your generous-“

“Delete!” Krapp roared.

And everything disappeared: the earnest narrative, the flame jets spouting from the fungal hovels, the smoke billowing from the strange topiaries.

Krapp unbunched shoulders dripping sweat. He couldn’t believe the content nowadays! Did these damn kids think everything was just a video game? He certainly didn’t want to see the slaughter of innocents one million light years away, even if it was just in simulation.

It probably served him right. He should have known better than to open the damn messages! Krapp just needed to get rid of these messages and be done with it.

But that single message, drifting at the universal cynosure, still whinged.

“Isolate Message/Sagittarius A*.” he said, almost hushed.

Everything else disappeared.

Krapp’s Last Email Part 1

This story is inspired by the famous one act play, Krapp’s Last Tape, by Samuel Beckett. Thanks to Harris Levinson for introducing my High School English class to this singular work.

Once again, I have the pleasure of collaborating with photographer and graphic artist, Bill Draheim. In previous collaborations, and in the spirit of Chris Van Allburg’s The Mysteries of Harris BurdickMr. Draheim would provide me photographic works to which I would write short stories. This time, the process was reversed. I provided the story and he came up with artistic pieces to match its flow. We hope you enjoy our newest effort

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One night, a few months before she left for Nepal with her post-menopausal adventuress group, Bianca turned to Krapp as they lay in bed.

“Don’t disappear, Krapp.”

“Hmmm?” Krapp’s eye did not leave the page of his artifact paperback.

“Don’t get old,” his wife said. “Certainly not on my behalf.”

“Just because I don’t go on crazy trips…,” and his voice had sputtered out in that way it did when he didn’t want to talk.

“That’s not what I mean,” she said.

But he had already frustrated her, and the conversation was over.

Later, while he was telling her why he didn’t want to go onto the Æthernet—it was too labyrinthine, he said, using an artifact word—she reminded him of their short conversation that  night. He pretended that he had forgotten. She, of course, had not.

“This is what I was talking about!” she exclaimed, meaning any number of things.

“Really, well I, you know…,” *sputter*.

“There are all kinds of data visualization methods nowadays, Krapp.”

She pulled out her SamWay tablet.

“I’m just not crazy about—” he said, but this time she wasn’t having it.

“I’m leaving in a few days,” she said, scoldingly. “What if I can’t call you where I’m from? What if I can only get ahold of you through FaceSpace or MyBook?”

Krapp vaguely recalled having a FaceSpace account in his younger days, but as notifications of grandchildren’s birthdays had given way to digital obituaries, he had gradually drifted away. Disappeared.

Just like his wife had said.

“Alright.” He surrendered.

Not one to gloat, Bianca got straight down to business. “Okay, let’s try something simple. We’ll  chart what you’ve eaten this week.”

And in the next few minutes she took stock of what Krapp had consumed (he chose not to tell her about all the bananas) and input it into an incredibly user-friendly system with a facility remarkable for her age. In minutes, the content of his meals that week was rendered in bar graphs, spirals, concentric rings, pointillist clusters, impressions, maps clotted with dots and cones and rods and….

Eventually he conceded and bought a Direct Interactivity System. Together, they set it up.

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That had been a long time ago.

On her trip a freakishly huge snowstorm hit the mountains. Some trekkers, his wife among them, simply disappeared. The irony was lost on him for many years, buried beneath a grief so immense that its very totality confounded any estimation of its limit. Krapp only noticed it upon attempting even the smallest action; for example, the lifting of his aged body from the bed—he taught himself that he must rise in the morning—happened only through considerable effort, as though a thousand years hung to his frail bones.

It had taken years for him to regain his vigor, and this returned only in part. Things that before had been easy were now hard.

Like checking the inbox of his email account.

It was this Herculean task that he prepared for that morning after he’d awakened, drank his coffee and eaten a banana.

He wasn’t entirely in error to think of it as something against which his nerves needed to be steeled, his mind and body prepared. In the twenty years since his wife had disappeared, the world had changed. At the time Bianca had been right. Data visualization did made information processing easier.

But these days it was an entirely different affair. After the formation of the Galactic Federation, the information superhighway had gone interstellar. Suddenly the news was not just of your garden-variety terrestrial dysfunction, but of alien warlords invading galactic outposts, broken treaties between xenon civilizations, disputes over empty stretches of space, and the increasingly common UFO visit to Earth’s city-sized mega-malls, presumably to stock up on the cheapest goods in the galaxy. In no time at all, information from the far reaches of the solar system was just a mouse-click away. Junk mail, accordingly, had gone from a manageable trickle to a deluge.

He doddered over to the D.I.S. and settled into his rolling chair. A finger run across the screen returned tipped in dust. He uncoiled the wires and plugged the eight-prong cord into his temple. He clipped the diodes to index finger and thumb, and dropped the glossy shield.

Krapp could feel his blood pressure rising. There would be thousands of messages waiting for him. Tens of thousands.

He pressed a button. The console hummed. The shield blackened and then…

Row upon row of stylized envelopes appeared, suspended in virtual space for as far as the eye could see.

Krapp swiped his hand. These first letters slid off to the side, quickly replaced by others.

“Jesus,” he muttered.

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Most of the envelopes plunged from sight.

Krapp’s hands trembled. His heart raced. What had just happened? It took him a long, sweaty moment before he realized what had happened: He had been so long absent from the Æthernet that he had forgotten any spoken word was construed as a command.

Those messages remaining on the screen would be from the world’s hundreds of Christian offshoots. Many would herald the end of the world, an event Krapp remembered having happened a few times in his long life already.

Well, he didn’t need salvation. And even if he did, it wouldn’t come via email.

“Delete,” he commanded.

Just like that, they were gone.

He thought next of how he might best categorize the remaining messages. He decided. He would trim the off-world hullaballoo first.

“Visualization: interstellar channels. Milky Way,” he commanded. A black and white image of the solar system appeared, sparkling with thousands of glimmering lights dispersed among the many stars. The closer to earth, the more condensed the clusters. The earth itself was awash. Each represented a message sent from that part of Federation territory.

“Exclude terrestrial.”

The white-hot clump of messages clustered around the earth disappeared. He brushed his virtual fingertips over those that remained, and brief synopses popped-up: political messages asking for support in other-worldly elections; businesses promoting products only available from gaseous planetoids; advertisements for off-world picture brides with ‘complementary morphologies’. Only a few had been sent from the outer limits, none whatsoever from the center….

Scratch that. One: a message from Sagittarius A*.

The Gloaming

 

The Gloaming

It was when the sun and moon shared the sky for the first time in an age that the priest had his vision. No stigmata, nothing so crass as speaking-in-tongues, just that rare gift of prophecy: When the darkness finally lifted for good, he would be the only one left.

Fire had been given them generations ago, but in the ten years since daylight had disappeared, the people of the Hebrides had nearly forgotten its heavy-limbed Prometheus. Children had grown up in the Gloaming the way others did in war. Plants dwindled to coarse, brown roots fixed within the interstice of sea rock and furrow. Nothing ever dried fully, and the sea, whipped by this endless night wind, had grown ever colder.

When that morning a new dawn finally broke, newborns mewled in fear, their older siblings at pains to quiet them. They were frightened too as this sad night was all they had ever known. Elders in their wisdom sobbed, but not from trepidation but relief that the crepuscle had finally ended. They wailed prayers they’d half forgotten to gods they’d feared had forgotten them.

Of them all, only the priest saw in the sun’s resplendent rebirth a sinister omen.

Lifting the hide flap that shuttered the stone home his ancestors built long ago, he looked out upon the sun-lit land. Life had been happening elsewhere. Now it had returned, but with it came a rigor—he could feel it in his bones, as surely as he could feel the sun’s heat warm his face for the first time since….

Though she’d died in spring, the Lord’s daughter did not move to the world beyond until the advent of a winter so cold it defied memory. For two seasons she hung on, with rasping breath and parchment skin, empty eyes open but unseeing. She had gotten lost in the moors and when they had finally found her, she was already dead though her chest rose and fell ever so slightly. Rigor held her muscles fast. The False Woman said she would leave forthwith, but once again she proved herself a liar. When the girl did finally pass, the sun went down that day and did not return.

Why now was he so afraid at its recurrence, climbing as it did from the black and silver hills of water that undulated unto the horizon?

Because life may have been elsewhere, but so too had death. He’d heard tales of the pustulant men and women with their bursting skin and blackened organs, of the thaumaturgists who strode amongst them on wooden sandals, sporting ludicrous long-nosed masks. No one knew from whence the pestilence came, by the wind or in the water, through the dark humors or the touch of vermin. But come it did, with buboes that wept red as the wrath of God. And now it would come for them. He knew it.

A woman bearing a staff hobbled upon the verdigris rock. She had a bad foot. She saw him looking at it and was excited to explain: “I hurt it running to the sun. I’m not used to the light and so fell.”

“You aren’t the only I’d wager.”

She laughed. She was missing more than a few teeth, “When you wager, you lose. Be careful or you’ll end up paying me with that dangler of yours again.” She pointed the staff at his groin.

She had lost her husband to the sea the year before. Without the sun, what food they ate came from the shores and nearby waters. The husband had been looking for winkles when the waves grabbed him. The priest took care of her needs after that. No one had cared when they lived in the dark: sex was one of the few creature comforts. But with the return of the sun, the priest knew that gossip and its attendant, humiliation would not be long in coming. He looked at her with her scraggly hair and scurvy green skin. How ugly they all must look, he thought, how ugly and small.

 

 

Keeping up with the Joneses

billdraheim.com
billdraheim.com

“Daddy! Daddy!”

Vikram Jai, deep in work, startled at his son’s excited voice.

“Hold on. Just a sec…,” he pushed his chair back from his desk, empty but for three laptops yawning. The glass tableau itself provided a fourth interface.

Where was Phaedra? It was her turn to watch Tommy. Vikram had work to do. Both of them worked remotely, which had enabled them to move to this part of the sub-suburbs, but working from home had its drawbacks. For life to function smoothly, they had a day-to-day schedule which had been determined with an exactitude that complimented their Type-A personalities. Vikram didn’t like to be the Bad Guy—who did?—but right now it was his time to work and, though he loved his son dearly, Vikram’s current project: linking Cherry Hill’s Solid Waste Utility social marketing network with the Electric Company’s, was time-consuming work.

“Daddy!” clutching the doorjamb with one tiny hand, Tommy piped his discovery. “Mr. Jones’ house’s `visible.”

“That’s right, buddy, a house is visible…. What a smart guy you are! But you know what, Daddy’s got a special project he’s working on. Can you go tell Mommy `bout your discovery?”

Tommy ambled in and pulled at Vikram’s forefinger and pinky. “No, no, no,” he shook his head emphatically, “Mr. Jones’ house dis`pearing.”

“Phaedra!” Vikram yelled over his son’s head. “Isn’t Tommy supposed to be with you, dear?”

Vikram puzzled over his words: disappearing, yet visible? An engineer by trade, such paradoxes made Vikram uncomfortable. He certainly didn’t want Tommy to get used to making such errors of logic. But this was his son. There must be some other explanation.

And then it came in a flash: Tommy had omitted the prefix!

Vikram shook his head. What on earth were they paying that octogenarian public school cut-out for if not to help their son with such simple elements of language? Phaedra had read a story in a magazine about the importance of sub-triannual educational methods. Certain things that could be done to ensure that one’s three-year-old got a leg up on the competition. But a child’s development was like a house of cards: so easy to destroy through simple thoughtlessness….

“Dear,” Phaedra’s voice came thinly through the floorboards, interrupting his thoughts. “Vikram, you’ve got to see this.”

 *

From the living room through the broad bay windows that overlooked an immaculate lawn, itself rimmed by beds wherein perfect ageless flowers swayed, the Jai family watched as the upper floor of their neighbor’s home turned clear as water. The road beyond could be seen through the pellucid gable.

“Mother F*ck*r!” Vikram exhaled.

Phaedra gave him a look and clasp her hands on Tommy’s ears.

Again. Mr. Jones had beat him again.

Racing from the living room, dashing up the stairs, Vikram went back into his office. He touched the tableau and waited impatiently for the computer to awaken. The screen brightened. Vikram briskly fanned through the many menus and, finding what he needed, prodded an icon. A smaller screen inside the big one appeared an old-fashioned phone icon at the center.

In about ten seconds, Buddy Jones’ falsely tanned face ballooned.

“Vik! How ya doin’, neighbor?”

Vikram knew from previous interactions that this jocular neighbor of his didn’t abide immediate dispensing of the requisite pleasantries. Jones was from the South after all. “Wonderful! Mr. Jones,” he said. “And how are you this fine morning?”

“Farting again instead of shitting,” Mr. Jones said. “You ever get a real case of the shits? Guess I musta picked something up in Guadalajupe.”

“Guadalajara!” Mrs. Jones screeched from off-screen.

“Yes, sir, like in the song: ‘oh black water, keep on running.’ Anyhoo, you musta seen some of the pictures on the board in the window. Some bug musta got in my beans.”

Vikram laughed from his throat. “Mr. Jones, that is a story and a half!”

“No need to stand on ceremony, Vik: call me Buddy.”

“Okay, ‘Buddy’,” Vikram exclaimed. “I was just calling to inquire about—”

“I know! Ain’t it a kick in the pants,” Buddy was all teeth. Suddenly, his smile dropped. “Um, Vik, you’re gonna hafta hold on a sec….”

The screen flickered, and Buddy disappeared.

“Mr. Jones? Buddy?”

“Yeehaw!” Mr. Jones’ cry came through the audio channel a second before his image reappeared, “What a ride. Sorry Vik. Let me do something `bout that so we don’t get disjointed again.”

He reached over the screen, his hand returning with a state-of-the-art remote control. Vikram had never seen anything like it.

“You looking out your window?” Buddy asked, remote poised in his meaty hand.

“No, I’m upstairs. Why?”

“Becuuuuz…I’m gonna turn off the Oskillatrex.”

Oscillatrix, Buddy. How many times…?” Mrs. Jones squawked.

Buddy Jones chuckled. “Women. They only hear you when you’re wrong?”

Vikram smiled perfunctorily and shouted out the door. “Phaedra, honey, are you looking outside?”

“Yes.” She said from below. “Well, it’s stopped…doing whatever if was doing.”

“There ya’are.” Buddy smiled and put the remote down. Then he folded his hands in front of him. “Now: what can I do ya for?”

“Well, Buddy,” Vikram began but then the words stopped. He felt his false smile flag, and a quiet desperation creep into face.

He thought of the Mercedes-Fiat floating in Buddy’s garage across the way, of the bioluminescent dinoflagellate inclusions that gave the Jones’ eves a sparkle at night, of the virtual board that flashed pictures of the couples’ trips through the bulletproof glass of their equally large and elegant bay windows.

Oh those gadgets, those wonderful things that Buddy Jones invariably bought and displayed before Vikram had even heard of them! It didn’t help that Mr. Jones, upon seeing Vikram’s consternation at missing the latest cutting-edge item, reminded him with his down home ingenuousness, that he had long since retired and now had the time for such doohickeys. No. It didn’t help at all.

And so Vikram Jai, proud father and husband, head of the Public Utility social engine optimization program of Cherry Hill, New Jersey, inquired in the most neutral voice he could muster where Mr. Jones had procured such a remarkable device.

“Heh heh, Vik,” Buddy winked knowingly. “Why don’t you come over, and I’ll show you how it works.”

The Ship – The Conclusion

The Ship The Conclusion

After concluding their visit to the Ship, Mr. Masterson and Mrs. Smith returned to find the dining room in a ruin. The others had fallen into drunken exhausted slumber. The evidence of their bacchanal lay all about.

Mrs. Smith prodded the now sleeping Mr. Blum with her foot. He stirred muttering something in gutter-speak but did not awaken.

“The evening has gone to seed, it would seem,” Mr. Masterson sighed. “Where is that tiresome man, Mr. Thick? It would behoove him to attend to matters in my absence.”

“About Mr. Thick, sir…” Mrs. Smith thought it was about time she explained what had befallen the manservant but a shriek coming from the landing interrupted. It was high-pitched but a man’s cry.

“Where’s Beatrice?” Mr. Masterson asked her. He suddenly looked very worried. In the aftermath of the feast, Beatrice’s absence had gone unnoticed. Where the girl had once floated now was nothing.

Mrs. Smith shrugged, at a loss.

“Beatrice?” Masterson yelled. It carried flimsily through the hundred halls. “Enough of your hyjinks, my dear.” There was no response. Even the sleepers didn’t startle. He strode quickly through the doors to the ledge. Mrs. Smith followed.

There was no sign of Beatrice. The golden tether that had leashed her floated over the void unburdened, rippling as it caught air. Artaud leaned against the curved balustrade. It was from him the cry had issued. The artist shook his head, eyes bleary from drink and the fall he had taken earlier.

“She woke me. Her hands on my throat,” he said upon seeing them. “I followed her out here….”

“What happened?” Mrs. Smith asked.

Artaud fell silent and nodded towards the abyss. Mrs. Smith looked for she knew not what, for if Beatrice had indeed leapt, would she not simply have risen, and in rising disappeared forever, drifting upwards through the crust of the earth and more?

“When I was young,” Masterson rested his hands on the balustrade’s cool stone. He spoke slowly at first, as if there were a chockstone at the entrance to his soul and only the effort of speech could roll it aside, “we had a summer home in the country by a lake. Mater and Father would languish on the deck in the sun in summer, drinking hard iced tea all day long. A single child, I was left largely to my own devices.

“At that time, there were forests still, green and full of all manner of creature. Awake to the world as only youth can be, I noticed my surroundings with a clarity that is realer to me now than anything that has happened for the last fifty years. Anything that happened yesterday, for that matter.

“I remember there was a spider that had spun its web beneath the deck between post and beam. I visited it periodically over the weeks until one day it was gone. I searched for it under the deck, in the fields, but only after crossing the two-lane road that ran by the property did I find it again. I knew it to be the same insect, as one knows one’s family even in a masquerade.

“By casting a silk strand into the air, the spider had been able to alight and transport itself across a barren, dangerous expanse. A marvelous evolution, you’d have to agree.”

Mrs. Smith put her hand sympathetically on his, a daring gesture of sympathy, but what false decorum remained?

Masterson continued: “I remind myself of that spider every time she does this.”

“Well, she was nothing but a phantom in any case,” Mrs. Smith said to comfort, though she realized after how brusque it sounded. “I mean to say….”

“A phantom?” Artaud spat. “What ghost can do as she did? She looked at me with such pity.”

Mrs. Smith shook her head. “I meant a figment. Of Masterson’s memory. Given form by the neural netting.”

“That, alas, is true,” Masterson retained his hand. “The same system that keeps Cave Fever at bay and powers the Oscillatrix. I wonder how you came to know of that?”

“Shinseki mentioned something along those lines.”

Masterson nodded, “That man is a gem. A genius. In here, only delusions admissible by myself may run rampant. No doubt, you’ve already experienced it.”

Mrs. Smith recalled the sooty winged devil and her own tenebrous visage staring up at her from the chamber floor.

Artaud was apparently recalling his own experience with the Oscillatrix. He shuddered. “ ‘Only what you allow’…. You are a sick man, Masterson.” In a foul gutter speak diatribe, he cursed his host before continuing in Standard English. “My demons are mine and mine alone!”

Masterson laughed heartily. Mrs. Smith realized that in her long season of employ beneath his roof, she had rarely seen him do so. “Spoken like a true auteur!” Masterson rejoined.

“This performance,” Artaud went on. He had an axe to grind. “For whose benefit is it?”

“Why?”

“For whom was this show put on? For your desperate daughter, who immediately after your departure tried to unleash herself? For her?” he pointed at Mrs. Smith. “For me? If so, let it be known that I am entirely unimpressed. In point of fact, I am distressed.”

“You didn’t even know it was a performance until Badubim asked your opinion,” Masterson chuckled. “Come now, Artaud, it’s only the three of us. You needn’t pretend to be anything other than what you are: a huckster.”

“I stood for ten days in a brace,” Artaud said proudly. “Entirely restricted. A woman whipped my legs and stripped my pants. She proceeded to rape me with her gamp. That, Mr. Masterson, is art. Something I’m sure you’ll never understand.”

“What was it that you saw,” asked Masterson carefully.

“What?”

“When you peered down at the Oscillatrix. Something troubled your soul, did it not, when you looked down there?”

“I…” but he could say nothing, only fume incoherently. Mrs. Smith feared he may attempt to physically harm her benefactor, but he only paced impotently back and forth, shying away every time he neared Masterson. “None of your God Damn business! How in bloody hell do I get out of here?” he saw the Elepad floating and walked towards it. “What you’ve done to art is unconscionable,” he yelled as he put one foot on the bubble-supported platform. “But what you’ve done to your daughter: that is monstrous!”

This last repudiation he lobbed as he descended to the chamber below. Mr. Masterson followed him down with eyes still glimmering.

Now it was just the two of them: one man dead, one girl disappeared, the artist fled, the rest replete and inclement. Mrs. Smith had one last question: “What do you see, sir, when you look into the Oscillatrix?”

He intoned quietly:

And I found I stood on the very brink of the valley

Called the Dolorous abyss, the desolate chasm

Where rolls the thunder of Hell’s eternal cry

 

So depthless deep and nebulous and dim

That stare as I might into its frightful pit

It gave me back no feature and no bottom.

“Tell me, Mrs. Smith. when one has created an inferno, should one be surprised when the very thing you most value is lost to the flames?”

Above the useless engine of the Ship groaned and roared to life. Never before had the jets been fired.

“Beatrice must be very determined to risk starting that ancient craft.” Masterson said, as he lifted his face to the quavering, trembling roof.

“She’ll dash the ship against the vault!” Mrs. Smith gasped.

“But she’ll be free,” Masterson smiled an old smile, one that countenance the delight he must have long ago upon discovering the spider, alive and renewed, in the cool shade of the trees.

There was a terrible cracking and then.

Forgiveness

This story was originally posted on Bill Draheim’s blog as part of our collaboration via the Mysteries of Harris Burdick Redux project.

My #FlashFriday contribution.

TheChurchandtheTree

 

When I saw it was Boris walking the median-that big loping stride, the buzzed head with the white scar at the heel of his skull-I pulled over. The Interstate this far away from town isn’t much, just two long lanes with rapeseed fields at either side, so he would have been safe if I’d let him be, but who drives by an old friend?

He said he would be glad of a ride, and I figured he couldn’t do me any harm anymore, so in he got and then it was the two of us like in the old days.

Boris looked toe up, worse than a beaten dog. He seemed to get worse every time I saw him. Dirt spattered his clothes. Flecks of glinting grit on his shoes. I didn’t ask where he was going or where he’d come from—a man is entitled to his privacy, as far as I’m concerned—and there wasn’t much to say that hadn’t been said before, so we rode in silence. Words would have just trod on the glory outside anyhow. It was that time of day when everything goes quiet and the light falls soft and slanted on the land.

Boris leaned his head back, eyes half open. After her sat like that for some time, I figured he must have fallen asleep. Though I always remembered him as a snorer. And here he weren’t snoring at all, though he seemed peaceful enough, for Boris.

I hadn’t finished what I’d set out to do that morning, so when we came to the little Lutheran church at the edge of town, I rolled the car under the white Ash and there we sat as the last light crept across the fields until only the bell-tower was lit.

“I’m gonna stretch my legs,” I said, in case he was awake. He had a way of doing that: playing possum. Sure enough, he nodded.

But I didn’t get out, not yet. The bough overhead cast a finger of shadow on the hood of the car. I watched as it waved, as though it were saying goodbye.

Boris lolled his head, gave me that evil eye of his: “I’ll stay in the car if that’s alright with you.”

“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I might be a minute. Gotta check out the church.” When he didn’t say anything, I said: “I could use a hand.”

“Church got nothing to do with me, nor me with it.”

Well, that was a hell of a thing to say. Boris was infamous in those parts for a number of reasons, but I was no angel either. “Fine. Then watch the fucking road.”

He laughed, “You really gonna case it out? A church?” As if that was the worst thing someone could do. “Forget it. I got some thinking I need to do.”

“Thinking!” That tore it. “What the hell you talking about, Boris?”

“That’s why I was out walking in the first place.”

“Then why’d you jump in?”

He didn’t have an answer for that. Instead he rolled his big head front and center and closed his eyes. Soon he was asleep, or thereabouts.

I slammed the door as I left.

The sun was dead and gone. It’s amazing how quick it goes down in the end, as if the horizon’s grease and the sun, an egg rolling off it. 

I climbed the steps and checked the door. What were these Podunks thinking, leaving the church open on a Wednesday night? Maybe someone was inside, a lonely old biddy praying in a pew. Maybe the Pastor himself. I knew he sometimes stayed late, to tidy up his meager things. I hoped to hell he wasn’t here. That would be all I needed, running into him and having to explain myself, why I was hanging around.

A wind blew. The leaves of the Ash tree stirred. I turned at the sound. Through the rear window I could see the back of Boris’ head, nodding back and forth. Thinking.

I remembered the salt-colored granules he had on his boots. It was Muscovite. I tried to think where it could have come from, the flats by his old house maybe? If he had gone there, it could only be for one reason but there was nothing to see, not anymore. Her folks had buried her in another part of the county, far from where he’d laid her down. Boris himself had been left where he lay. No one would touch him. 

What the hell, I thought, let’s take a look, but the church was silent and empt and as usual, there was nothing worth stealing. But I figured I’d come back next week. Probably the week after that, too, just in case.

When I returned to the car, Boris was already gone. He would be heading back to his old house right about now, thinking about what he’d done, fading with each step, like how light fades at the end of day.