Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Third Wish - Part 3 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The storytelling was obviously having an effect on the old man.  He was lapsing into silences.  There was a hint of moisture around his eyes.  Leon wondered if he was watching his collapse.
Finally, with a glance at the clock, Tennery sat back straighter into his chair.
"Of course," he resumed, "I didn't tell myself I was just being greedy.  It was in the third year.  I was having money problems.  My son was having school problems.  The Vietnam war was beginning to have its effect on the public, and every report of our soldiers being killed had a direct tug at my conscience.
"I knew I was weakening.  My high-minded moral stand against bending history to save Kennedy was going to go out the window and I could see myself burning the remaining Wishes by rescuing a lost kitten or arranging for a sunny day for a picnic.
"Wrestling with the problem every day, and every night before I drifted off into sleep brought me to a plan.  I would use the second Wish to choose a long and prosperous life here in New York.  I would tie my fortunes directly into the fortunes of society.  By wishing for this life, I would–as a side effect–be insuring no more nuclear wars or other great disasters during my lifetime.  All this could be done with just one Wish.  I could then save the last one for some great thing that I couldn't foresee.
"I pulled the dusty peanut-butter jar from the safety deposit box, half afraid that the Wishes would have evaporated or gone dark.  Like two glowing eyes, they were still there, still waiting for me.
"This time, the fire of God's power in my hand was like euphoria, not at all like the terror of the unknown that I had felt the first time.  Again there was this omniscience as I reviewed the potential worlds of my future.  I took my time, savoring the possibilities.
"When I focused on my goal, however, I discovered that there were limits.  I could get to nearly any end result, but not without consequences.  If I wished to live to be a thousand, then all of human history had to change, back to the Babylonians, in order to advance the medical sciences enough to make it happen.  If I wished for universal peace and prosperity, then something strange happened to humanity, some genetic twist back in pre-history, that allowed a more pallid version of the human race to come to be, a race that was content to live in a tightly controlled matriarchy in a prosperous hive city.  If I looked for wide social justice, then America became a monarchy, and one that looked ready to collapse when the current King died.
"Again, I settled for finding a world with my original goal, but one with a minimum of side-effects.  I had to settle for a shorter life than I had hoped.  I had to settle for relative obscurity in spite of my wealth.  I had to settle for protecting just my corner of humanity from disaster.  In the end, this is the life I chose–knowing in the back of my head that there was always the third Wish."
Tennery rolled the globe across the table and Leon jerked from his chair to catch it.  It was heavy, the glass was thick.
"Don't worry.  I sealed that up long ago.  It is tough.  I have a big hammer in the desk if I really need to open it, but it is not likely to break open on its own."
Held close, the marble did glow.  Leon tried to focus on its surface, but with no luck.  Was he really looking into a million alternate realities?
Tennery's voice steadied.  "So!  This is the job I'm offering.  Take the third Wish.  Use it when it is needed."
Leon broke his eyes away from the globe.  "What?  Why would you do that?"
Tennery stood up.  "Because I am going to die soon.  I know the very instant when it will happen.  Since I don't want to waste the Wish on extending my own pitiful existence, I needed to find someone to take over my place."
"Then why me?"
Tennery smiled, "Feeling the pinch already?  Learn to live with it.  But to answer your question:  You are educated in history, so you won't panic when little things like depressions and brushfire wars happen.  I also like the way you handled my tests–suffering in silence, but being smart and methodical.
"I read the checklist from your computer.  You had the evidence.  You filed the papers like clockwork.  You could have convinced any judge, unless I bribed him.  You didn't scream at the fates.  You didn't threaten.  You even listened to your girl-friend with more patience than she deserved."
Leon let the praise trickle off his back.  He knew what kind of person he was.  Methodical or dull, either term applied.  What mattered this instant was understanding Tennery.  Sane or not, right now the man was the most important influence over his own future.
"How do you know I won't waste your Wish?"
He shook his head.  "I don't know.  It is all a gamble."
The old man counted on his fingers.
"One, you can handle disappointments, even catastrophes.
"Two, you have no close family, no one you should feel compelled to rescue.
"Three, you can handle poverty.  I have a trust set up to make sure you are eased into wealth with as little stress as possible.  That shouldn't side-track you."
He spread his hands, "But I will be out of the picture soon and it won't make any difference what I think.  But seriously, I don't have any choice."
Leon asked, "What about the old trick of using one wish to make more wishes?"
"Ha!  How many times have I thought of that?  There isn't any djinn to tell me the rules.  What if it doesn't work that way?  The omniscience vanishes as soon as the change is made.  The only way to tell is to burn the Wish on the attempt.
"In any case, I am done with the responsibility.  I didn't waste the Wish to bring my own son back to life.  I didn't waste it to make my wife love me again, or to bring her back after her death.  I won't waste the Wish!"  He looked over at the clock on his desk.
"Anyway, my time is done."
Crash!  The huge window shattered into a million white diamonds.  Crack.  Crack.  Crack.
Leon dropped to the ground.  He looked at his right arm–a thick numbness made it hard to recognize that the gushing red was his blood.  He tried to clench his fingers together, but they didn't move.  Too much blood.  He gripped his good hand over the wound.
The door to the elevator came open and two guards in uniform came in crouched low.
"Get down,"  Leon called.  "Someone is shooting at us."
The black guard waved him down.  "It has to be Jennings."  Fred, the other one, was scooting along the floor towards Tennery.  Crack!  There was another shot.  There was a tight "Uhh" of pain from Fred.
Jennings?  Was he the 'unstable' one?
Leon lifted his head slightly.  He had to see what was going on.
Edmund Tennery was down, his head was covered with blood, and strangely misshapen.  He is dead, just like he expected.  The guard was bleeding–a large red patch growing on his side.  Why is he still shooting?  Surely he could see his target go down.  Unless I am the real target?  Fred's partner was already moving into the range of fire.
I have to stop this.  Leon looked around for anything he could use.
Among the large glass fragments near his side, a glowing marble sat quietly in the thick carpet, freed from its prison.
Could I do it?  Could I wish it away?  I could bring back the old man.  Keep the guard from being shot.  Keep me from getting shot!  Just make the shooter's gun jam or something.
It was tempting to reach down and pick it up–to start the magic.  But what if it is real–he wouldn't thank me to bring him back.
There was another shot, and the other guard edged back to shelter.  Fred was still pumping blood. He is going to bleed to death.  I have to do something.
He looked around his limited shelter behind the desk.  Glass fragments of the globe, shattered by the second bullet, and the Wish itself seemed to be his only tools.
Leon felt an ache creep up his whole right side.  They were all locked down by the shooter.  I have to stop it.
He let go of his wound and reached down with his good hand.  With a scream of pain and effort from deep inside him, he shoved the massive wooden desk four feet over and toppled it.
The other guard was alert, and moved into the protected space and started pulling his partner to safety.
Leon leaned against the wood, until it jumped with the impact of a spatter of bullets as the frustrated gunman reacted to the barrier.
There was scattered debris everywhere.  He picked up a decorative container and dumped the paperclips it held.  Carefully he scooped up the Wish and closed the lid on it.  His hand tingled in its proximity.
The body of the old man lay still.  He looked at peace in spite of the violence of his death.  I'll think about it.  I owe you at least that much.  But I have to work it out, step by step.
Step 1.  Protect the Wish.  He put the little box deep into his pocket.
Step 2.  Stay Alive.  His hand still tightly over his own bleeding arm, he started his crawl out of the room.

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Third Wish - Part 2 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

"Now, you had begun work on your doctoral thesis, yet you dropped it and started job hunting.  Why?"
Leon forced the whirl of questions to the back-burner and let his mind go back to that time, three years ago.  It was painful.
"History isn't a science," he began.  "I chose to explore the possibility of an alternate interpretation of Eisenhower's use of the CIA during the last few months of his term."  He grimaced.  "It just so happened that my idea was in direct conflict with a project my advisor was working on.  He took it as a personal affront, and he had the reputation to make my project a non-starter.  After that, every idea I had was likely to start a shouting match.  My only choice was to move to a different school and start all over again, or go to work for a living.  I didn't have the resources to start over."
Tennery nodded, "A tough call.  But, if you had the money, would you have stuck it through?  Was you interpretation right?"
Leon laughed.  "This is history we are talking about–different interpretations on limited documentation.  Without a smoking gun or a signed confession, it is all up to the best guess.  I don't know if my idea was right.  It seemed logical at the time."
The old man looked again at his papers.  He glanced up at the clock on his desk and frowned.  "Okay, next question.  If you could make one change in history, what would that be?"
"Is this a serious question?  I've got a million changes to make.  For starters, I would like to have had rich parents."
"Yes, it is a serious question.  As a historian, what would you have changed in world history?  But you can make only one change."
Leon Neuman frowned.  On impulse, he stood up and looked around the room.  Okay, if this was a job interview, then he should at least try to make a good impression.  But he had been run through the meat grinder, and he was not at all in a forgiving mood.  If all the recent pain had been due to an old man's whim, he would make sure people heard about it.  He would certainly take the house and the car, but forgiveness was something else.
Still, what was his mysterious job offer?  The sunlight was streaming in through the large windows and he walked over to view the expanse of the city.  There were millions of people out there.  They each were moving on their personal track.  Each one with a history.  Change something in the past, and every one of those personal histories would be different.  Some would vanish altogether.
Tennery walked over to look out the window with him.
Leon shook his head, "I wouldn't change anything.  It is all just people, and people wouldn't change.  Change who won a war, or who is president, and there would be just as many saints, and just as many sinners as before."
"You don't think big changes would do any good?"
"Oh, if I could tweak it–make a correction every day–then it would be tempting.  To be honest, I don't think I am smart enough to make the one right choice the first time.  That's what all the three wishes fables are about, isn't it?  The first wish is wasted, the second one is disastrous, and the last one is used to put everything back like it was."
"I hope not."
"How about small changes?  If you could make a change in one person's history?"
"And still only one wish?"
"Oh sure, I know people who have messed up their lives.  I'm one of them.  I should have gone for engineering instead of history."  He grinned.  "And there are at least two girls who should have gone for the boy with the brains instead of the one with the good looks."
Tennery cracked a smile.  "And which one of these mistakes would you correct?"
Leon turned to face him,  "What is this job?  Are you setting up some RAND-like think tank?  Are you looking for deep-thinking historians?  If so, I am not your first choice."
He nodded, "You weren't.  I have been looking for the right person for several years now.  Two others have been offered the job.  One turned it down.  The other...  I had to withdraw the offer.  He proved...unstable."
"What is this job?  Surely you aren't going to all this trouble to replace a data entry supervisor?"
Edmund Tennery waited a moment, and then turned towards his desk.  "Come here, I want to show you something."
They resumed their chairs, and the old man picked up a heavy glass ornament, a hollow globe, from the clutter of items on his desk.  He shook it, and Leon could see a smaller sphere, like a marble, rolling around inside the sealed globe.
"It was a little before sundown on October 2, 1962.  I was waiting for it to get dark before I hung myself."
Leon jerked in response.  The old man had his eyes closed, remembering.  He decided to wait and ask his questions later.
"It was a very bad day.  My wife had gone into the city and I had watched my whole world burn to ashes when the first of the Russian A-bombs exploded over Manhattan.  None of the explosions came close to me, but I was able to watch the flashes on the horizon.  My neighbors panicked, rushing around, trying to prepare for the fallout.
"When the electricity went out, I sat in my car, listening to the only radio station that were still on the air.  Of course, the announcer didn't know anything more than I did.  The Cubans had shot down an American spy plane.  Kennedy had ordered Havana bombed.  The Russians retaliated–and New York was destroyed.  I assume we also bombed Russia."
Leon ran the story against what he knew about the Cuban Missile Crisis, and there were was one glaring error–no nuclear war ever happened.
"Of course, not a lot of this meant anything to me then.  I only knew that my wife and my little boy had died, and that I was likely to die from radiation poisoning within the next few days.  My life was torn to shreds and I saw no real reason to continue.  I didn't have a gun, and I knew that I would have trouble killing myself with a knife–I had a horror of doing it poorly and bleeding to death slowly.
"Hanging seemed a good choice, step off the second story balcony and snap my neck.  It was just a matter of finding a good rope and tying a sturdy knot.
"It was while I was sitting in the living room, testing the knots, that the Wishes appeared."
"The what?"  Leon asked.
Tennery shook the glass globe again.  The marble-thing rolled around inside.  "The Wishes.  I received three wishes."
Leon already suspected the man was crazy.  Of course, rich people were called 'eccentric', but with this last revelation, it appeared that 'crazy' might be the best term after all.  He felt the urge to get up and leave, but he remembered where he was, on a secret floor of a building Tennery owned, with a security guard nearby that never cracked a smile.
"Of course I didn't know what they were," the old man continued.  "I just knew that these three glowing marbles had appeared right in the middle of my coffee table."
Leon looked again at the marble.  Was it glowing?  In this light he couldn't tell.
"My first thought was that the radiation was already affecting my brain and that I was going crazy.  I was using that table.  I had dumped all the old magazines and had laid out the rope on it while I tried to remember how to tie a hangman's noose.
"I stared at them for a moment, and then picked up the closest."
Edmund Tennery's face changed, it was as if his age faded away.  He was looking off into nothingness.
His voice was a whisper.  "It was as if I touched God.  Something like warm fire crawled up my arm, and as it reached my head, it seemed as if I were reaching into another place.  It was like I had stuck my arm, and then my head through a hole in the world."
Tennery looked away from his vision and turned to Leon.  "I can't explain what I saw.  I have tried often enough, first to my wife, and then to several close friends."
"Your wife?  But you said she was caught in the attack?"
He waved his hand, "Yes, I will get to that.  I just need to explain, and I know I can't do it justice."
He paused a moment, gathering his thoughts.
"Imagine," he started up again, "that you opened up a large filing cabinet, packed with folders.  As you run the tips of your fingers along the tabs of the files, you suddenly comprehend each and every nuance of every word in that file.  You move your finger to the next one, and you are filled with it, while the first recedes to an old memory.
"Now imagine that each of these folders is a possible version of our world, and that there are millions of them.  In a swipe of your hand, you can sample uncountable possibilities, from worlds of unimaginable advances where technology has accelerated far beyond our own, to worlds where life never began, and with another swipe, worlds of Eden-like pastoral simplicity or globe spanning tyranny.
"Uncountable worlds, and you have just enough omniscience to tell the differences.
"You can imagine what I searched for–a world very like my own, but one where this horrible attack never happened.  I found my wife in many new worlds.  I carefully searched for a minimum of side effects, and then when I found it, I grabbed it and pulled it out."
He was breathing hard as he related the tale.  He paused, a timid expression on his face, as if fearing laughter.
"So this is the world you picked with your Wish?" Leon asked, willing to suspend any overt signs of disbelief, for now.  If it were true, Leon didn't like the taste of it.
"Not exactly."
Tennery shook the globe with the ease of long practice, and the little marble raced around the inside.  There was something odd about the marble, even when it was resting still at the bottom of the globe, but Leon couldn't put a finger on what it was that gave him that impression.
"The world I grabbed grew and swallowed me up, the feeling of fire faded, and I was once again sitting at my coffee table.  The rope was gone.  I Love Lucy was on the television, and there were two glowing marbles.
"I looked at the television shows, wandered through the neighborhood and sweated through the evening news.  I didn't really believe it had all changed until my wife and son arrived at the end of a long shopping day with their horror tales of lost glasses and a drunk that shared their train back from the city.
"For nearly a month, I woke up each night and went into the kitchen to stare at the two remaining Wishes.  I had hidden them at the back of a top shelf, in an old peanut-butter jar.  I sweated through the new version of the Cuban Missile Crisis when it hit the news, and during its peak, I kept the jar with me at all times."
Tennery gave the globe in his hand another twist and watched the marble spin.  "You see, I experienced the miracle.  I watched my wife and son come back to life.  I had solid memories.  I could never convince myself it was a dream.  I also had the two remaining Wishes where I could look at them.
"But in spite of all this, I didn't trust it.  There was no explanation.  Where did they come from?  Why did they show up on my table?  Why were there three Wishes?  It frightened me.
"A year passed.  The Kennedy assassination happened.  By that time, I had moved the Wishes into a bank safety deposit box.  As the world went into shock, I considered changing the world again."
He shook his head.  "But I didn't do it.  The people considered him a saint, but I had seen the world–my original world–destroyed by his mistakes.  I became a judge.  I let him die."
In the silence that followed, Leon asked, "What happened to the second Wish?"
There was a shrug.  Tennery waved at the room.  "I got greedy."

Friday, August 26, 2011

The Third Wish - Part 1 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

This is an old 'trunk story'.  I sent it around the markets back in 1998 and circulated it for three years before letting it gather dust.  It's wordy and too long for the subject.  But I never wanted more than a little look at the 'three wishes' concept.  Time for a little airing.

"You don't even try!"  Beth's voice over the phone was so loud that Leon Neuman winced when he saw John in the next row of cubicles imperfectly try to ignore it.  There was no privacy in this group.  He picked up the next application and began to copy the hen-scratches into his screen.  He couldn't stop working now, not even to talk to Beth.
"Are you listening to me?"
Leon nodded, then replied in a near whisper, "Yes.  I didn't know you had asked a question."
"Well I did!  What are you going to do about our house?"
Our house?  Leon didn't recall making any of the two or three offers that would lead Beth Hannover to feel ownership.  But now was not the time to point that out.  He put the application in the 'Done' bin and picked up the next one.
"I told you I have written a letter..."
"In other words, you aren't going to do anything!  You are going to let that bank 'droid lock you out of your own house and you are just going to stand there and smile."
"Well, it isn't quite like that.  The contract clearly states..."
"You should march right into that bank and demand to see the president."
"I wish it were all that simple..."
"You are the simple one!  That's it.  No more.  Don't call me again!"  Click.
You called me.  Leon let out a sigh and put the phone back on its cradle.  He could type better with both hands anyway.  He glanced at his 'In' basket.  It was taller than it had ever been.  Ferris had been quite clear.  Get them all entered, perfectly, today, or find another job.
He could feel the other clerks watching him.  He didn't need to look away from the screen.  He was the boss's target.  He was the one with the loud girlfriend.  He was the pathetic one.
For just an instant, his mind went blank.  His hands paused on the keyboard.  The screen made no sense.
No.  Keep cool.  Think about one thing at a time.  His hands resumed their rhythm.  Too many problems, all at once.
The house–the bank was missing the payments he had sent it, and the man on the phone was quite abusive about it.  They hadn't locked him out, yet, but it was on the agenda.  He had made the payments.  The checks had been cashed, but his account had been with the same bank, and he could not get any help ordering photocopies of the canceled checks.  His own records were hardly conclusive.  F3, submit.  Next form.
His car had been old.  It burned oil.  AC worked when it felt like it.  It badly needed a paint job.  Now it was totaled.  The guy who had rear-ended him hadn't even acted apologetic.  There was no insurance from him.
Leon thought he was covered, but when he called, the policy wasn't on the computer.  He had trusted that insurance agent.  The broken windshield two years ago had been handled with pleasant efficiency.  They had joked about boys with baseballs and he had been convinced that he would keep his policy with there forever.  Now, his calls were never returned.  The body shop had called to complain.  He had to come up with money, or they would have it towed off the lot.  F3, submit.  Next form.
Money.  The bills in his wallet might be all that he had, and the daily taxi ride to work was depleting that rapidly.  Would he be working on this robotic, repetitive job if he had any other options?
At first the job, coming out of the blue like it did, had seemed to the work of a guardian angel.  The pay, while unspectacular, was steady.  The work was undemanding.  No one seemed concerned about his former work experience.  No one even asked why he hadn't completed his degree.  It was better than fast-food, or digging ditches.
Everything changed.  His boss, Ferris, changed overnight from a pleasant good buddy to a strident monster.  "This department is sloppy," he had declared.  "Changes will be made."
Leon shook his head.  All of them were focussed on him. He became the department scapegoat.  F3, submit.  Next form.
There was a noise, or maybe the lack of noise.  He looked up from his work.  A security guard strode through the maze of desks towards him.
Leon paused in his data entry midway through the next account name.  It can only be for me.
"Get your hands away from the keyboard!"  The stout man in the company guard uniform rested his hands on his equipment belt.  His pistol was holstered, but plainly visible.
Leon sighed and lifted them away from his desk.  He turned to the man at the next desk.  "Bill...." he started.
"Get your mouth shut!  Now stand up, slowly."  The guard reached for the hand cuffs at his belt.
It was all too ridiculous.  He had done nothing.  It it had been possible, he would have laughed.  As it was, all he could do was give the room full of his co-workers a rueful grimace and a shrug.
Bill didn't catch his eyes.  He, as well as half the floor, had heard Ferris refuse to accept that the crashed hard disk yesterday was not his fault.  The ultimatum wasn't likely to be met, even if Bill decided to drop his own work and try to help him out.
Leon felt the cold metal of the hand cuffs snap around his wrists.  He couldn't even work up any more indignation.  It was just one more calamity.
This morning had been a sign.  The power had been cut off to his house, and he had overslept without the alarm clock.  The cab company had been nearly an hour late in picking him up.  Then, when he arrived at the office building, the elevator chose just the wrong time to lock up, with him stranded between floors.
He didn't blame Bill.  It wasn't safe to even talk to him.
Once the guard marched him out into the hallway, Leon asked, "What..."
"No talking."  He poked him with his baton.  He was pushed into the opening elevator.
Leon had a brief, very brief, surge of anger.  If he had the slightest belief that outrage would do him any good, he would have blown his top.  He didn't have that much optimism left.
Live through it.  Something has to change.
The elevator door closed.  The guard reached for the buttons then suddenly groaned.  He fell with a floor shaking crash.
What now?  Leon could only stare.
The heavy man looked unconscious.  His arm was draped across Leon's shoe.  He twitched his foot loose and stepped back.
What is wrong?   He stayed motionless.  Surely it was a trap.  The instant he moved, the guard would open his eyes and shoot him.
But what if he is really sick?  If he is having a heart attack he could die while I stand here.
The guard was motionless.  Leon couldn't tell if the man was breathing.  He found it hard to act.
Leon Neuman had always been fairly passive.  He had been the third child of four.  His place had always been to wait until his older brother and sister had their pick of seats in the car–their choice of TV shows.  He had gone to his brother's college.  He didn't recall giving the issue any thought.  Such things were always decided before hand, for him.  It had bothered him for years, but even now, on his own, he still moved through life step by step, checking his footing each time.
Leon shook off the paralysis, a man's life could be at stake.  There were things to do.  First things first.  He pushed the call button.  There was no response.
He yelled, "Hey!  There is a sick man in here!"  No answer.
He moved his bound hands up and pressed the door button.  There was a lurch, as if the elevator car had dropped a foot, but the doors didn't respond.
Am I going to have to do this all myself?  He kneeled down and put his hands on the man's chest.
He could see the man's gun, and the keys to the handcuffs.
There is something wrong here.  He looked hard at the guard's head.
He stood up.  Definitely, something wrong.
"Okay!"  He spoke loudly, "You can get up now.  I know you are faking it."
There was only the faintest of tensing in the guard's jaw, and he continued to lie as he had fallen.  Leon was confident.  He had taken enough first-aid courses in the past few years that he could plainly see that the man was in no real distress.
He leaned back against the wall, made himself as comfortable as possible, given the handcuffs, and started humming the repetitive melody of a song from the radio.  He could out-wait them.
Twelve minutes passed.  Leon tried his best to sleep.  He would not rise to the bait.
"Okay Fred," came a man's voice over a hidden speaker.  "You can bring him on up."
The guard opened his eyes and levered himself to his feet.  He showed no sign of embarrassment when Leon looked him in the eyes.  His perpetual scowl didn't change.  He took out a set of keys and turned one of the locked switches on the strip that were labeled for fireman usage.  The elevator started up.
Somewhere between the 22nd and 23rd floors, the elevator stopped and the door opened.
The guard grabbed his hands and removed the handcuffs.
"Get."  He ordered.  Apparently, the guard wasn't coming with him.
Leon rubbed his wrist where the metal had pinched, and stepped out into the elegant surroundings.  The whole floor appeared to be someone's office.
The Old Man.  It was a guess, but a reasonable one.  Office rumor had it that the founder of the company, Edmund Tennery, had never really turned over the power to the current CEO and board of directors.  Supposedly, he still pulled the strings from on high.
No one but the multi-billionaire recluse would likely have this office.
It was a very subdued decor.  It you didn't pay attention, it looked nice, but if you examined the wood-paneled walls, and the comfortable furniture, you quickly realized that everything wasn't just 'nice'–it was perfect.
"Don't dawdlecome on in."  It was the voice from the elevator.
Leon stepped silently across the carpet.  As he entered the main area, he spotted the man putting up a book in a floor to ceiling bookshelf that stretched along the whole back wall..
Yes.  He did look like the grainy black and white photo on the history plaque in the lobby.  The old man waved to a chair.  "Sit.  We've got some things to talk about."
Leon did as he was told, but he was not too thrilled by this latest revelation.  Anything new was likely bad news.  The man sat at his desk and pulled some fat envelopes from a drawer.
"You are Leon Neuman, a data entry clerk.  Why did you choose that job?"
"I didn't choose it," he answered abruptly.  He throttled back on the anger that had jumped out.  He continued, a little more civilly, "It was the last job on the list.  You get hungry and any job starts to look good."
Tennery looked at the papers in his hands.  "You didn't finish you doctorate.  Why?"
"What do you have there?  Have you been spying on me?"
For the first time the old man looked him straight in the eyes.  He nodded, "Yes.  Most of this is standard employment information, but I have been looking at you a little closer than that."
Leon felt a dark suspicion start to grow.  It must have been reflected in his face.
Tennery read his expression and nodded, "Yes, I have been responsible for some of your recent troubles."  He tossed one envelope his way.
"This is the corrected papers on your house.  I have paid off the remainder of the loan.  You now own it free and clear."
He tossed another envelope.  It was smaller and contained something hard inside.
"This is a replacement car.  It is parked in the garage below."
Leon glanced at the contents, ownership papers with his name filled out.  The keys were fresh cut and shiny on a BMW ring.
"What is going on here?  Was my boss...?"
"Yes.  He was acting.  He gets a nice new promotion out of it.  You are already penciled in as his replacement."
"But,"  the old man held up his hand, "I didn't have anything to do with your girlfriend."
Leon sat back in his chair, holding the envelopes that were worth more than he had planned to make in many years.
"I don't understand."
"I don't expect you to.  For the moment, just think of this as a job interview.  Answer my questions and I will explain everything later.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Henry Melton at Armadillocon

I'll be at Armadillocon 33 this weekend at the Renaissance Hotel Austin:
9721 Arboretum Boulevard, with my table set up and all my books out to handle and fondle.
My brain is still churning from the first draft of The Kingdom of the Hill Country, the sequel to Star Time in my new series The Project Saga, so if you want some spoilers, I'd be happy to oblige.  If you are a reader of Henry's Stories, please drop by and chat.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Litterbug - Part 3 of 3

© 2009 by Henry Melton

Maybe Dad's whole theory was wrong and it was unrelated to today's event?
But that didn't make sense either.
He shifted in his seat, and heard the faint rattle of the wrapper in his pocket.  Why had he brought it along?
He pulled it out, and while the President spoke about his future plans to help the farmers, Jerry stared again at the shiny plastic.
It was frustrating.  The packaging did look futuristic, in many subtle ways.  For example, the seams were really merged, not just hot crimped like normal.  Even the font that advertising text was written in was like nothing he had seen before, yet clean and crisp and very readable.  And that info-dot–how far into the future before everybody easily used things like that?
But if it was from the future, it had to be related in some way to this event.   If the traveler dropped the wrapper yesterday, he had to be scouting out the area before today's festivities.  Why?
He looked over the scene again.  It was a mob, packed with people all around the stands and nearly up to the train.  Even Highway 79 was blocked off.  All traffic, road and railroad, had to stop while the President gave his speech.
Jerry glanced along the rails.
He stood up and grabbed his binoculars.  Far to the west, there was something on the tracks.  The heat shimmer made it hard to see, but it looked like another train was coming.
Vividly, he remembered picking up the Brokies wrapper, wedged against the rails–right next to the switch.  It was almost the last bit of litter he had picked up.
The switch!
From his position on the top row, he could make out the yellow-tipped handle that controlled which position the rail was in.  It was just like they had left it when they directed the special onto the siding.  
But surely the oncoming train would stop.  They had traffic signals and there was a red light on the tower.  He could see it plainly.
He turned his binoculars again on the oncoming train.  It was coming closer.  But something looked wrong.  There was no engine.
A runaway!
His father had told him something like this had happened before.  Eight miles away in Round Rock, several cars had been parked on a siding.  They were all connected to an air-hose that controlled the brakes.  A loss of air stopped the car.  The rules were to bleed the air out of the hose when parking train cars, but someone had taken the short cut and left them pressurized.  
The land between Round Rock and Hutto looked flat, but there was indeed a grade, enough to keep Brushy Creek flowing swiftly, and enough to accelerate the cars to dangerous speeds.
Those are tanker cars.  Chemicals.
For the first time, he felt afraid.
He looked over at the town.  Of course.
The tanker cars would come barreling into town and smash into the Presidential special on the siding.  The tanks would rupture and splash flaming death over the President, the news crews, and all the people of Hutto.
And me too.
There!  The man in the black suit was watching him again.  He waved his arms wide and shouted, "Train!  A train is coming!"  He pointed.
The people from Hutto frowned at him.  Trains coming through town were nothing new.  
But the Secret Service man was talking into his radio, and instantly, there was motion all over the stage.  Men stopped the President in mid-sentence and were hustling him off the stage.  The locals were starting to panic.
Jerry looked around for his father.
Back at the edge of the crowd, almost to Main Street, his father was resting against the two-story brick general store.  Back there, they hadn't noticed anything wrong.
And at the corner of the building, a man was avidly scanning the scene with a camcorder.  There was nothing odd about that, except for the strange color plaid baseball cap he wore.  Maybe there were plaid baseball caps somewhere, but he had never seen one before.
There was shouting below.  The compact wedge of Secret Service men protecting and moving the President shoved their way through the crowd at the base of the stand.  They were making for the parking area, where other agents were trying to get a car free of the jammed space.
They aren't going to make it.
Jerry looked back along the track.  The runaway was much closer.
The yellow end of the switch handle was barely visible.  That was the pivot point.  That was the difference the time traveler had examined yesterday.
The President wouldn't make it to safety in time.  The news crews and all their videotape would be destroyed in the inferno.  Other than a fragment of live broadcast, there would be little to document what happened to cause this great catastrophe.  Future researchers would die to know what exactly transpired.
It was all clear in his head, but there was no way he could reach the switch in time to avert the onrush of history.
Below, in the mob, the shouts were getting more strident.  His SS agent was one of them.  Yelling at hi radio.
Jerry jumped over the edge of the stands, and landed painfully in the mass of Secret Service men.  A pistol was shoved immediately in his face.
Jerry yelled, "Somebody get the switch changed back to the main line!  The runaway is heading for the siding!"
His agent put a hand on the pistol and pushed it down out of his cheek.  With the other hand, he was already on his radio, yelling for the railroad workers.
But the agents didn't stop for him.  They were getting the President to safety no matter what.
Jerry pulled himself up off the ground and started shoving through the mob on his own.  He had to reach his father.
Up ahead, trying to buck the stream of panicked people, there he was, looking for him.
And filming the whole thing, the man in the plaid ball cap was standing in the doorway of the large brick building, maybe the safest spot in the whole town.  A time traveler would know which places came through unscathed, wouldn't he?
Jerry gritted his teeth.  Let us all die, but get your video!  He turned and stalked straight for the time traveler.  The man glanced up from his viewfinder.
Jerry pulled the wrapper from his pocket.  He waved it and yelled.  "I know about you!  It's not going to happen!"
The man with the camera looked at him.  Jerry could see his eyes focus on the wrapper, and comprehension come over his face, like the face of horror.
There was a sudden wrench, and Jerry stumbled, and almost fell.
I can't panic now.  This will be the safest place in town, I just know it!
There was the growing rumble of a train coming, and as he rounded the corner of the building, the string of a dozen tanker cars blazed through town on the main line.
They made it!  The surge of relief was cut short by the flash of an explosion as the cars finally jumped the track just past the old baseball field at the far edge of town.
But I'm alive.  I'm alive.
"I understand we have a real live hero!"  The President came into the room and the Secret Service men who had been questioning him backed out of his way.
Jerry shook his head, "Hardly a hero, sir."
The President held out his hand and Jerry shook it.
"I am quite sure I owe you my life, and maybe two thousand other people could say the same thing.  I think that qualifies you as a hero.  That's what I've been telling the press, and you know they believe everything I say."
Jerry was uncomfortably aware of the blaze of camera lights that had accompanied the President.  He could only smile timidly.
But the President wasn't done with the moment.  "How did you know that the train switch was in the wrong position?"
Jerry shook his head.  "Just instinct, I guess.  I had been on the cleanup crew yesterday–picking up litter along the tracks–and I had looked at how the switch worked.  From where I was in the stands, I could just tell that it was wrong."
"You have good instincts.  And a good heart working for you town like you did.  You ought to go into politics when you get a little older."
Jerry tried to hide the thought of what his father would say about that.
One of the other men in suits came up. "The boy's father has arrived."
Greg Foley entered, a little shy of the lights.  He ignored the President and came straight to his son.
"Dad, you made it."  They embraced.  Camera lights were concentrated and hot.
"I was in the pickup before the sound of the explosion reached the house.  But they almost didn't let me into town."
The President moved into the lights with them.
"I am sorry about that.  But let me thank you, too for your son's efforts."
"You are the President, aren't you?  What did he do?"
"He tackled a squad of Secret Service agents and made them switch the train tracks back to the main line.  He saved the day.  He saved the town too."
It was several hours later before they made their way back to the house.
"You know," said his father, "I almost think I'm a little psychic."
"What do you mean?"
"A moment before the explosion, just a few seconds really, I was hit by the sudden feeling that I really should be in town.  It was so clear.  I was already out the door when the flash happened.  I've never had a feeling like that before in my life."
"I know what you mean.  When I saw the train coming, I just knew where I had to run to try to escape the explosion.  Instinct I guess."
His father nodded, absently, and finished off his canned coke.  He crumpled it like always, and then hesitated for an instant, before tossing it into the aluminum recycle bin.
"Dad?"  Jerry was shocked.
His father grinned.  "Okay!  So maybe I'll stop being a litterbug.  After all, I have a famous son I shouldn't embarrass. Logically, I know I was right.  But..."
"But what?"
He shook his head. "I can't shake this feeling.  Logic isn't everything.  Nobody can predict all the effects of his actions.  I'd hate to litter and have it come back to haunt me."  He shrugged.
Jerry smiled.  "I'm proud of you Dad."

Monday, August 22, 2011

Litterbug - Part 2 of 3

© 2009 by Henry Melton

"I think I have heard of this," his father said as he looked over the shiny wrapper.  He looked at Jerry, "Do you still have that assortment of magnets you ordered?  Go get it."
One by one they tested different magnets.  Each pushed the wrapper.  When they found the little samarium magnet, Mr. Foley spread the wrapper flat on the bench and the little rare-earth magnet floated in the air above it -- suspended by the magnetic field.
"No doubt about it, Meisner effect," he pronounced.  "You have a superconductor here."  He frowned.  "A room temperature superconductor."
Jerry shook his head.  "I don't believe it.  I've read up on superconductors.  You need super cold conditions to make superconductors."
His father shrugged, and tapped the little magnet.  It wobbled, oscillating with nothing to dampen out the motion but miniscule air friction.  "Do you believe what you read, or what you see?"
Jerry took a deep breath.  "I don't understand what I see."
"Good.  Neither do I.  I could maybe see someone inventing a superconductor and then keeping it secret.  But a candy wrapper?"
Mr. Foley tapped the magnet aside and picked up the wrapper again.  He read the text, and then examined the inside, and even the edges for some clue.
"Jerry, there is something different about this.  Here, take a look."
At first glance, the Brokies wrapper was just like all the other wrappers he had seen.  There was a bold text banner across the top proclaiming the name, with an enticing image of the treat itself–some kind of caramel glazed chewy treat.  It was when he looked the back side that it struck him just how strange the wrapper was.  There was no fine print.  Both sides of the package were the same.
He grinned up at his father, "There is no recycle logo."
"Ha!  Trust you to notice that one."
"Also, no ingredients list.  I thought all food things had to have a list of ingredients."
"And no trademark symbol next to the product name, nor a use-by date, nor a copyright on the text.  If it didn't say 'Made in San Antonio' there plain as day, I would have suspected it was from some other country, one where the product laws were different."
They were both silent for a moment.
Jerry asked, "Okay, maybe it's an experimental lot.  Somebody in San Antonio is getting ready to release a new candy and has given out samples for people to test."
"Hmm.  Maybe.  What is that dot?"
On the upper left of the package was a large gray dot, nearly a half-inch in diameter.  Jerry looked closely.
"Wait a minute."  He dashed over to his workbench and rummaged in a drawer.  He pulled out a large magnifying glass and examined the dot.
"Come look."  He repositioned the lamp to shine a brighter light on the wrapper.
His father adjusted the glass.  "I can't see as well as you do.  I think I see a pattern."
Jerry nodded.  "There is a pattern.  That dot is a dense maze of digital information.  And it seems to be laid out in some kind of spiral pattern."
The elder Foley nodded.  "Now it makes sense."
"What makes sense?"
He set down the magnifier.  "Somebody has invented a way to put all the junk information into this dot, like a super IPC product bar code.  I'd bet that all the trademarks, ingredients, and product history is all encoded into that dot."
"No way.  That doesn't make sense at all.  You still have the laws, and nobody is set up to read the dot.  Even if the big stores and warehouses have dot readers, it's the end-user, the consumer that needs to be able to read recycle markers, ingredient lists, and the date the food goes bad.  The dot is useless."
"Unless everyone has a dot reader."
Jerry shook his head.  "Everyone doesn't."
His father waved his hand.  "Hear me out.  Digital watches are so cheap right now that they give them away.  How much more so when the electronics get generations more powerful and smaller.  I could see a day, fifty years from now, a hundred, when stores have a giveaway pile of things smaller than a dime that could read the dots.  Marketing would love to get rid of anything on the package that isn't advertising.  Not too far in the future, everybody will be able to read the dots, with a dirt cheap free reader."
"Maybe in the future, but not now."
His father just stared at the wrapper, frowning.
Jerry asked, "You aren't serious?"
"If there were cheap ways to make room temperature superconductors, just think how nice it would be to use it as a candy wrapper.  Your whole production line could just move the things around on magnetic fields."  He pointed at the rubber and metal conveyer belt that was part of Jerry's gadget.  "Wouldn't it be cheaper to use and maintain than that?"
"Well yes, but the future?  You can't mean time travel."
"Because it's impossible?  Well there is more than one kind of impossible.  What's scientifically impossible changes every day, but what's economically impossible has a little more staying power.  That's based on human nature.  Your idea of an experimental product is possible, but no one could be stupid enough to hide a breakthrough like room temperature superconductors so they could make candy wrappers.
"Son.  I don't think you should go to that whistlestop thing tomorrow."
"Because I can't think of any reason for a time traveler to come visit Hutto unless something bad is going to happen."
They argued most of the evening over it.  Jerry was adamant that he had paid his dues and had done the cleanup chore and he deserved to be there to see the President.
It was going to be a once in a lifetime event, and the only argument against it was that maybe time travel was possible, and that maybe there was something bad that would bring visitor to Hutto.
Jerry fought with tenacity.  He could never tell for sure when these arguments were bogus.  His father would argue over anything, and often didn't really believe his own position.  Still when they headed for town in the morning, his father wasn't done.
"Safety should come first.  After all, the whole event will likely be on the television."
"Dad, give it up.  You are repeating yourself.  I am going."
"Disrespectful youngsters.  I promised myself I would avoid this exercise in political self-gratification at all costs.  And now look at what you are doing to me.  I have to stay there all day to watch out for you."
"You could have gotten a good seat if you had helped with the cleanup."
"I'm not that hypocritical.  The farther I can get from the event the better."
Jerry wondered again whom his father voted for.  For as long as he could remember, the polling place was an early morning visit on election day.  But he would never find out which way Dad voted.  He would debate against any politician under the sun, but there was never a kind word for any of them.
"If I am right," Mr. Foley said as they pulled up next to the Co-op's silos where cars were being parked, "it will at least prove one good thing."
"What is that?"
"That in spite of all the ecological brainwashing, there will still be litterbugs in the future."
Even though the train wouldn't arrive for another couple of hours, the makeshift parking area was nearly full, and the bleachers were mostly populated.  Jerry brought his binoculars and camera, and had to wait in line as the Sheriff glanced over his items before he would be let in through the barricade.  It would have been annoying if it weren't for the news crews.  Second class citizens, they had to wait by their remote broadcast vans until all the locals were seated.
Jerry went for the top row.  He settled in next to the football coach and the school board president.  
"Good morning, Jerry.  Did I see your father here?"
"Yes coach.  He decided to come to keep me out of trouble."
They laughed, and the men went back to their discussion.  Jerry pulled out the binoculars and scanned the area. 
It was a long wait.  In spite of the fact that he had heard the band practicing 'Hail to the Chief' all day long at school this week, it was a relief to be able to watch them from his perch.
The long wait also gave him time to worry about his father's time traveler theory.  Suppose someone was here from the future.  Why here?  Why now?
Why would I want to travel back in time?
He would like to watch a lost treasure being buried, so that he could find it in the present day.  He would like to go back and see Jesus do a miracle.  He would like to watch the JFK assassination and see if there was really someone on the grassy knoll.
That last worried him the most.  This President was really hated by the farmers.  Suppose one of them tried to do something about it.
He looked over the area again with his binoculars.
It was amazing how many people in uniform there were.  All of the local police and DPS officers were in attendance, as well as a large number of men in black suits with little earplugs snaking up out of their collars. 
He was startled when one of them turned and stared directly at him.  He waved, but there was no response.  How many of these events did a Secret Service agent attend before he grew tired of all the same people?
Besides, Jerry thought, he should be looking for the time traveler.  What would a time traveler look like?
Not somebody he knew.  Probably not any of the police or Secret Service, because they would recognize a stranger in their own ranks.  His best bet would be to find someone ordinary who had something strange about him–because if the time traveler had a perfect disguise, then he would never spot him anyway.
Of course, there were a huge number of ordinary strangers in Hutto today.
He settled down to scan the crowd systematically.  He was bored stiff, and anything was better than watching the grass grow.
He knew the train was coming five minutes before he could actually see it.  The black suits started moving at a quicker pace, and the police started using their hand held radios.  He stood up to stretch and ease the soreness on his backside before the main event.  The SS agent watched him again.  Jerry was pleased.  He had never thought of himself as a suspicious character before.  He waved at the man again.
The rest of the crowd started standing as the little silver train approached.  The band struck up its piece as the three-car Amtrak special pulled into town.
From his perch, he watched as a railroad worker, accompanied by a black suit, worked the switch and directed the Presidential special over onto the north siding.  The rumble of the engine almost drowned out the music, but the Hutto Hippo band played gamely on.
There wasn't a long wait.  The door swung open and the President of the United States of America came to Hutto Texas.
Jerry, and everyone else, took a picture.  It was amusing how many flashes went off in broad daylight.
Barely had the speeches started, when he had a worrisome thought.  Why did the time traveler litter yesterday?