Friday, September 30, 2011

The Manta – Part 1 of 17

© 2011 by Henry Melton

He was shoved sideways and almost fell out of his reading chair. His book slid across the floor. Angrily, he looked through the ceiling. 
It’s that girl, back again. What has she done now!
He checked to the side as the floor rocked under him. She’d snagged her anchor on the starboard wing.
The surface was churning above. The wind was strong. The pull could hurt the Manta.
Hurriedly, he slipped on his face mask and cycled through the airlock. The warm Caribbean waters were as familiar as air. He swam easily over to the wing, trailing the thin snorkel line that allowed him to breathe.
It’s bad. The anchor had bent the aileron. A minute later he was back with a carborundum blade and sawed through the braided metal anchor line. He paddled back out the way as the last thread snapped, trailing bubbles from its cavitation through the water.
He could see the boat on the surface move.
But he could also see the girl in the water, swimming after it.
She’ll never make it. The wind is pushing it too fast.
Stupid situation, or stupid girl–it was all her fault anyway.
They were thirty miles to the nearest shore. Unless she could catch her boat, and she couldn’t, she would drown.
Serves her right. The Manta is down here on the bottom for peace and quiet. She had no right to come pester me.
She damaged my ship. I had every right to protect it.
It was hard to sigh into a face mask regulator. It lost some of its expressiveness. No matter, he’d have to rescue her.
But first, he had to repair the aileron or he’d get nowhere. In the airlock, he slapped at the big red button that used to be labeled, ‘Stow Tail’. The markings were long worn away.
In the tool bin, he found a large rubber mallet. Not the best tool for underwater work, but it would have to do. With a piece of coral as an anvil, he bashed the aluminum reasonably flat. No telling what it would do to his flight path, but he needed to move fast before the girl wore herself to exhaustion.
Back inside, still dripping from the sea water, he checked that the tail was fully stowed. Familiar strokes on the control panel and the pumps began blowing the ballast water out of the wings. Before too long, the nose lifted abruptly from the silt and the Manta slipped silently free of her bed.
Using the wings and the slow rise of the ship, he steered in the direction he’d seen the boat, heading downwind.
How long had it been?
If she wasn’t a good swimmer, there was no hope for it.
What will I do if she’s already drowned?
His first impulse would be to leave her be and let the fish take care of her.
It’s not like I’d killed her. She got herself into this mess.
The Manta had a variety of light-shades on the inner surface of its transparent glass hull. He shifted the front ones back. He’d be flying this manually and he’d need the visibility.
On its own, the Manta sensed the surface and shifted ballast so the nose tilted downward. That was how she moved, in slow arcs through the water, using the rise and fall of the ship and its wings to propel it forward. He set a limit this time, keeping no deeper than thirty feet, rather than the deeper dives the ship normally used 
There!  He saw her. Her legs were kicking and she sculled with her hands, fighting the waves that threatened to knock her down below. 
He adjusted the trim and eased under her. Slowly, so as not to drift out of position, he came up under her feet. 
She must have thought he was a shark for an instant, the way she tried to swim straight up into the air, but she settled down once she saw the transparent central hull break the water beside her. She grabbed hold of one of the wing’s ridges gratefully. Their eyes met, and it was hate at first sight.
He waved backward, toward the airlock, but she didn't get it, clinging to the trim fin like it was a life buoy. He sighed, tapped the control panel and went outside himself.
The wind was higher than he liked. Normally he just stayed below when there was any kind of weather. As soon as he stepped out onto the wing, he faced another kind of blow.
“You cut my anchor line! I might have drowned! And I lost my underwater camera!”
He chuckled inwardly at her priorities, but just pointed at the mangled aileron. 
She didn’t even look in that direction. “Are you some kind of maniac? Why did you do that to me?”
Inside his head, he was going to say, “Your anchor was damaging my ship!” But all that came out was “Ah. Look.”
It had been so long since he’d actually talked to someone that his mouth felt wrong. The words sounded strange.
She frowned, glancing back but concentrating on him. She still was clamped on the fin like a barnacle in a dark blue bikini. Her wet, red hair obscured half her face.
He sighed and walked over, grasping her wrist and pulling her up to her feet.
She wobbled, and he realized she was exhausted from fighting the waves.
He held her upright and walked the both of them over to the aileron and pointed at the mangled mess. He wanted to push her nose in it like a misbehaved puppy, but perched on the edge of the wing like they were in unsettled waters, it was hard enough to keep them both upright without falling in.
She looked down at the bent metal and he guessed it was enough.
“Come on.” He pulled her toward the airlock. She stumbled and he had to help her back up on her feet. Her eyes were on all the details as they went through the airlock, but he had no time to waste on a tour.
“There,” he pointed to the couch. She gratefully collapsed on the seat, feeling the cushion gingerly, as if not knowing what it was.
“Sponge,” he said, and she nodded, and leaned back, closing her eyes.
He looked her over, partly checking for any injuries. In salt water, even serious wounds could be washed clean and be undetectable from a cursory inspection, but they would need to be cared for. Luckily, he didn’t see any injuries.
But he hadn’t been this close to another human in years. He knew she was a girl when she made her two trips overhead by the bikini. The first time the Manta had been too deep for her to get any closer without breathing gear. This second time, because he’d been in the shallows charging the batteries, she had gotten closer, too close.
But at this range, the fact that she was mostly bare skin was kicking over some hormones that had laid dormant for a long time.
I can’t have this.
He rummaged through his closet and although he had next to nothing, he found an old gray robe that was mostly threadbare.
“Here.” He tossed it her way.
“Thanks.” She pulled it on, keeping suspicious eyes on him. “My boat. We have to catch it.”
He paused, thinking about it. He’d thought he’d just get her close enough to a shoreline and let her swim the rest of the way back to civilization. 
I guess I might be able to catch it.
Without saying anything, he went over to the controls and manually cranked up the spine–an antenna poke that usually rode flat against the main hull.
The display screen came on with no problem, although he hadn’t activated it in some time. Most of the electronics were sealed tightly behind the console, so that the salt air that inevitably crept inside the cabin would not affect it. But they did take power, and he was always conscious of power usage.
Radar showed the blip.
“Moving fast. Try it.”
He powered it off and cranked the spine down again. The girl was watching everything he did. Not that she’d be likely to make sense of it. All the controls were custom. The Manta was unlike any other submersible on the planet.
“What’s happening?” She gripped the couch as the Manta began to sink.
“Chasing your boat.”
She glanced up fearfully as the water level on the transparent sides crept up to cover up the sky. She looked over at the controls, but there were no fancy indicators, other than a ball bearing in a curved glass tube, a tilt meter, to show what was going on.
He went back to his chair, picking up the book where it had fallen. He settled in and thumbed the pages to find his spot. The light dimmed as they got deeper, but he was used to it, and they’d be swinging back shallower soon enough.
The floor tilted slowly, almost unnoticeably. The girl stood up, testing her balance.
He didn’t look up from his book, but said, “The more you move about, the harder it’ll be for the autopilot to stay on a straight course.”
She nodded. “I need water. I’m dehydrated.”
He sighed and put a bookmark in place. He rose and walked over to the water closet. He opened the door for her. “Faucet. Red is fresh water. Blue is salt.”
She looked around. “Do you have a cup?”
He looked puzzled for a moment. “Stay put.”
A moment later he walked back from the pantry with a washed out tin can that still held a scrap of label. It had probably been canned fruit. She took a drink.
“Yes.” He walked back to his chair, but he kept an eye on her until she timidly closed the door. A moment later there was the sound of the power flush. And then came another noise.
He knew every pipe, every valve, and he could practically feel the change in ballast as she used the fresh water to rinse the salt off of her.
He sighed. It wasn’t worth complaining about her use of his limited supplies. She’d be gone soon.
She walked out soon, drying her hair with the edge of the robe. She looked his way, but he concentrated on the text of a book he’d read dozens of times before. It did no good to look at her.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Forget It! - Part 2 of 2

© 1977 by Henry Melton

Carlos stared at the warning for a moment, then asked, "Are there more of these warnings in the data?"
"They appear at the beginning of every file, immediately after the file heading."
"Every file?"
"Yes, would you like a count? It will take several seconds."
There was an uncomfortable pause. Carlos wasn't used to computers taking so long to answer. Finally it displayed the number. "43,339,083."
Oh boy. Was Fred ever wrong on that one! Not only is it illegal, it's forty-three million times illegal.
Carlos pondered over his options for a good five minutes. The National Index was a big prize to give up. But Carlos had a painful honest streak in him.
"Computer, erase the data block you recorded last night off the Vidi screen." Fred'll hate me for this but it isn't his computer.
Carlos glanced down at the little message in blue and pulled himself upright in his seat. The words read, "I cannot erase the data."
"Why not?"
"This computer memory system was not designed to erase any of its contents. The memory block was designed overlarge for the job requirement, allowing the expensive selective-erasure function to be deleted. If a new or edited copy of any file is needed, sufficient memory space exists to have both copies. Any named file will be represented by the latest copy. However, earlier editions are always available."
"You can't erase anything?"
"That is correct."
Carlos argued with his arm for an hour, forgetting that he was supposed to be at work. It just happened to be Fred who went out to look for him.
"There you are, my friend. What have you been up to?" he asked with a smile.
Carlos showed him, and the smile drooped. "Still," argued Fred, "it's good data. I don't know why you would want to erase it."
"It's illegal, Fred," Carlos explained, as if Fred was a little on the thick side.
"Well, you don't have to tell anyone you have it. You don't have to use it if you don't want to."
Carlos shook his head. "No, Fred, you know better than that. This little wrist gadget is duly registered in my name. Its contents are legally available to anyone with the right government form, including the tax people every year. I couldn't keep it secret any longer than a couple of months at the most. I even checked the NI file on its own procedures for tracking down information thieves. Every time a data bank is checked through a privacy scanner, like at tax time, the scanner hunts for that warning notice that I showed you. With forty-three million of them, it could scarcely miss it in my case.
"We've got a problem."
Fred stretched and got to his feet. "Yes, I'd say so, my friend. You've got quite a little problem there. Good luck to you." And he walked off.
Carlos watched him go. Somehow he wasn't surprised.
For days, Carlos's wrist felt like it was wrapped in lead. The longer he thought about those millions of theft alarms screaming, just waiting for someone with the right machine to hear them, the more it seemed as if he was going to have to find an acceptable way to break his beautiful little machine. Deb wasn't going to like that. He wasn't going to like it. Already the thing was indispensable. It was a universal note pad and appointment calendar, reminding him of things he had to do. As absent-minded as he got at times, that function alone was worth almost any price to him.
Almost any price. Certainly not a jail term.
Deb Walker was half puzzled, half gratified that her husband spent so much time studying the instructions for the machine she had given him. He seemed quite faithful in his study. But it was strange he didn't seem to be enjoying it much.
Tax time was approaching and Carlos was much more worried than his wife. He sat in the study, muttering to himself. That was new. He didn't normally talk to himself.
"It's all your fault." He addressed himself to his computer. It didn't answer. It never did to his accusations. "If you could just learn to forget!"
"I can forget."
Carlos's mouth dropped open. "What do you mean?" he growled. "For weeks now, you've told me that you can't erase a thing from your memory and now you say you can forget?"
"That is correct."
"Which is correct–that you can't erase, or that you can forget?"
"Both are correct."
"Explain that to me, if you please."
"There is no method I can use to erase the memory. As I have told you, only a complete power failure could wipe any data from the memory, and since I am a sealed unit, any attempt to discharge the lifetime power cell would cause irreparable damage.
"However, the memory system I use has no absolute addressing system. All data are relatively addressed from an arbitrarily chosen point in the uniform homogeneous block. This basic reference coordinate is held in a special processor-register. My normal programming cannot affect this register, but the set of Explicit Machine Commands, as listed in the instructions, has the capability of erasing this register. If this is done, the memory contents will not have been erased, but without a method of locating these memories, they will be effectively forgotten."
Carlos nodded to himself as he tried to imagine what it was saying. It couldn't erase–but it could lose the map to part of the memory. He tried, for the hundredth time, to comprehend the sheer magnitude of that memory space on his arm–a solid hologram, with the active elements being individual orbiting electron-hole pairs in that special kind of mathematical space created by crystalline semi-conductors. Every word ever written by mankind throughout the ages could be easily expressed in that pattern, and then as easily lost if the writer forgot the key. The National Index would hardly make a ripple. Lose the key, and everything is lost.
"All or nothing, right? How much will you lose?"
"Everything but the Explicit Machine Commands. All of the files that you have set up. All of the routines programmed in at the factory, and all of the initialization."
"Is there a way to save the factory stuff?" Carlos hated to lose those, they created most of the utility of the gadget. He had seen the EMC instructions and he could tell that he wasn't enough of a programmer to be able to do anything useful with them.
"Only if there is another memory block to store the data in."
Carlos glanced at the Vidi on his desk. "Okay, then. Let's get started."
Tax time came and went, and Carlos breezed through it with a smile. A number of people noticed that he had broken loose from the gloom that had been hounding him. He actually met the day with a smile. Fred looked at him speculatively from time to time, but Carlos always seemed to be late for a meeting when he dropped by for a chat. Everything seemed to be sailing smoothly.
Until one day he came home from work to find his wife in a stormy rage. Carlos tried to find out what was wrong, but whatever the sin he had committed, it must have been mortal. He found himself barricaded in the study, up against a formidable wall of angry silence. He didn't understand–until he remembered the date.
April 27. Oops! It was going to be a long night.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Forget It! - Part 1 of 2

© 1977 by Henry Melton

When I wrote this, back in 1977, a lot of computing was new.  This same issue of the new computer magazine ROM had an article explaining a new-fangled concept called hypertext.  The editor had seen another article by me and requested a story with a 'memory' theme.  Getting a request was exciting to me, so I wrote this overnight, and so many of the predictions I made were so laughably wrong.  Instead of the web as we know it, I envisioned something more like AOL or Compuserve, and instead of the Internet, I had the Tie-line, a cable TV derivative.  Still, I predicted the copyright issues, and working tonight on my Mac, where my word processor saves all versions of everything, I wonder how soon Carlos' problem becomes more widespread.

Carlos Walker had the most thoughtful wife. He told her so while he shook the fancy wrapping paper free from the tiny package she had gotten him for his birthday.
It was a beautiful computer–a gold case on a gold watchband, with an elegant soft black display screen. Deb had been subjected to his wishing aloud for this model since they had hit the market, but he hadn't expected her actually to get him one. It must have done horrible things to her budget.
She may have been reading his mind, for she shushed him before he could ask, and handed him the instruction booklet. Then she rose to fix the cake.
Instructions. Oh, boy. Now I've gotta figure out how to work the thing.
He thumbed past the technical stuff, his eyes catching on the bold print...baseplate is a block of electron-hole-pair holographic memory with a nearly unlimited capacity. Comptron guarantees that the memory cannot be filled in the lifetime of the original owner.... The thin-plate WPU.... accepts instructions in an expanding subset of 2012 REVISED U.N. STANDARD ENGLISH....
The good stuff, the real operating instructions, Carlos found several pages later. He was pleased to see the boldface notice that the contents of the entire booklet, as well as a simple instruction course in operating the computer, were available in the computer's own memory at the call of a code word. He scanned the rest of the page which gave the voice-coding procedure, then set it aside.
He brought his arm before his face. "Computer, key to my voice."
"It is done." The computer's voice was male and very much like his own. The screen had displayed his own words in red and the computer's in blue.
"Display the index, please."
The little blue lines of data rolled up the screen tiny, but clearly readable. There were a lot of useful functions listed there.
Finally Carlos said, "Stop. Make a note of Deb's birthday, April 26, and be sure to notify me a week before then."
"It is done."
Carlos nodded and got up, pleased with himself. The odor of rich German chocolate cake was drifting into the room. Maybe I'd better get it to remind me to stay on my diet–tomorrow.
Fred Browell looked like a pet falcon perching over Carlos's shoulder as Carlos put his computer through its paces calculating the day of the week Fred was born on.
There was such a longing in Fred's voice when he finally sighed and said, "What I wouldn't give to be able to afford one of those."
"I hear the prices should be coming down some time next year."
Fred nodded, "But that's next year. The thing I have in mind has to be done now, or not at all."
"What's that?"
Fred looked uncomfortable. Carlos got the strong impression he hadn't meant to bring the subject up. Fred eyed the wrist-computer critically, then asked, "What kind of data-rate can it handle?"
Carlos shrugged and asked it. The display screen filled with technical specifications, while it vocally reviewed the high points. Fred listened carefully to the listing of the audio and visual band widths the device's sensory transducer arrays were capable of handling.
Fred frowned a moment in mental calculation, then asked, "Can you store video-to-memory at that rate?"
There was silence. A smile flickered across Carlos's face, and he repeated the question for Fred. The computer knew its master's voice.
"Yes. The data can be stored directly to memory, without processing. Detailed recall or processing at a slower rate can be handled later."
Fred mumbled to himself, grinning. Carlos could almost see the visions of kilobucks that were dancing before Fred's eyes. Nothing but money made Fred quite so gleeful.
Fred turned to him with a big grin and a slap on the back, "Carlos, my friend, how would you like to make a little spare change?"
"What's the deal?"
Fred glanced down the hallway. No one appeared to be taking any interest in the two of them. Fred eased around to where he could talk while keeping an eye on the people around them. When he spoke, his voice was considerably softer than usual.
"Have you used the National Index?"
"Of course." Who hasn't. When every information file you need is right there on your Vidi terminal, why go anywhere else?
"And what, my friend, do you find objectionable about our National Index?"
"Oh, not much–other than the constant file charges and those nuisance priority codes." Carlos hated those priority codes. Nothing was worse than knowing that the information you needed existed, just a keystroke away, and then not knowing the code to get at it.
Fred smiled knowingly. "Exactly, my friend. Have you ever paused to think how the information in the Index gets to your Vidi?"
"It's hooked to the Tieline. I suppose they send it out that."
"Right! And do you know how?"
Fred glanced down the hallway again. "I didn't either," he confessed, "until I ran across a notice in one of the restricted files I had to look up for Kordi. It said that due to unauthorized information taps on the NI system, they were going to transfer the information feed to an unnumbered channel." He paused for the significance of that to sink in." Thus, I assumed it was currently on a numbered channel. I looked for it, and I found it."
Fred slid into Carlos's desk seat and reached behind the Vidi terminal for the picture controls. With a little tweaking, he managed to roll the image half-way down the screen. Above the image, on one of the entertainment channels, was a dancing gray area.
"Raw file data. Constantly updating the holding memory in your Vidi. I think it is unscrambled as well. Your wrist-computer said it can store data faster than the Tie-line updates the NI. If you ordered it to record what it sees and you left it pointing at a Vidi screen set up like this for a few hours, you could have the whole National Index on your arm. For no charge, and with no restricted files. Some of the stuff would gradually get out of date, but a lot of it wouldn't." Fred eyed him significantly. "And I'm sure you might find a friend, he pointed to himself, who would pay you to transfer a duplicate into his computer, when he finally can afford to buy one."
Carlos had to admit that it appealed to him. But he had some doubts. "It sounds illegal."
Fred frowned as he readjusted the Vidi, "I don't think so. The notice I saw implied that the NI people were making the change to comply with some kind of legal ruling. I'd bet it will be illegal, after they make the change. Besides, you can always erase the copy if we find out later that it's illegal."
Carlos chewed on his tongue; it was tempting. "Let me think about it."
"Don't think too long. They reprogram the network on the first of the month."
Carlos did a lot of thinking that night. The way Fred put it made the whole thing sound so easy. But he also remembered how stiff the laws had gotten on copyright matters in the last couple of decades as copying into digital storage systems became so easy. And he only had Fred's word that it would be legal.
In fact, he only had Fred's word on a lot of things. Carlos glanced down at the computer on his wrist. How did he know it was really possible?
"Computer, is it possible for you to store digital data that is displayed in real-time on a standard Vidi channel?"
"Would you be able to index that information later at my request?"
"That would depend on what type of data was recorded and which encoding methods were used. If the data is in a standard code, it would be possible."
Carlos leaned back in his chair, meditating on possibilities. A minute later he abruptly got to his feet and went into his study where he kept his home Vidi. With some experimenting he finally found the way to make the picture roll down as Fred had done on the office machine. But in this case, there was no hidden data.
Wrong channel. I should've noticed what channel that was. "Computer, what channel were Fred Browell and I watching at about eleven this morning?"
"I do not know."
"Why not? Couldn't you see the channel indicator?"
"I do not know. At that time, there was no command to record, and so I did not do so."
Carlos growled at the thing. There were too many channels to hunt through, hundreds of the things. It would take him all night if he had to hunt it up himself.
There's really only one way to find out. Like he said, I can always erase it later.
Carlos tapped Fred's name and I.D. on the keyboard. The half of Fred's face that was visible on the misadjusted screen lit up when he saw who it was calling him.
Carlos asked, "What channel was that?"
"How long do you think it would take?"
I've never seen a file that was more than half a day out of date. Give it twelve hours."
Fifteen minutes later, with a little coaching from the computer to align its camera's field of view with the data on the screen, Carlos left the room. The wrist-computer was propped up facing the Vidi screen, with little blue letters on its face spelling out the message, "Recording."
Twelve hours. Should finish just before I have to leave in the morning. I hope it works.
It seemed to burn on his wrist all the way up to the office. It seemed forever before he could take a break and talk to it. He found a nook and checked the hallways.
Just like a criminal. This isn't like me.
"Computer, display your answers only. "
It printed in tiny blue, "Okay."
"Is the data you recorded off the Vidi in clear code?"
"Can you index files from it on my command?"
"Any file?"
Carlos was nervous like a little boy on his birthday. Free access to the National Index was like a license to steal. "Display the file on current international monetary exchange rates."
Out it came, scrolling up the screen at a rate for comfortable scanning.
"Wait! Back that up to the beginning!"
The image scrolled back down until the very first of the file filled the screen. Carlos read it with a sinking feeling.
"WARNING: Any duplication of this information into any technological storage or display system without a registered authorization by the National Index Corporation is a felony under the Information Ownership Act of 1997."

Friday, September 23, 2011

Turkey Dinner - Part 1 of 1

© 2011 by Henry Melton

I wrote this one before the Wild Boars became such a big problem in this part of Texas.  But it makes me wonder....

"Evolution is like a turkey dinner," said Bud with satisfaction, nudging his buddy with the butt of his rifle.
"Huh?" asked Jeb.
"I guess.  How long has Mark been?  I'm not going to haul this thing all the way back to the break in the fence without the pickup."
"Okay," Jeb sighed, "tell me this great insight of yours."  He leaned back against the still warm 600 pound feathered bulk of their night's work.
Bud patted his prize, "You've got to admit we have evolution-in-action working here.  This jumbo turkey and his brothers never existed before.  And it's because all the ingredients came together, just like a turkey dinner.
"Forget all that millions-of-years noise you got in school.  Look at the charts in the encyclopedia sometime.  The dinosaurs died off, and overnight, there were a million mammals.  It was the vacuum that did it.  The land has room for only so many big herbivores, only so many big carnivores.  Kill off those and new ones have to pop up.
"Now look at what we did.  Humans are the top of the food chain!  We spent thousands of years killing off the big shag-nasties.  There used to be woolly mammoths, saber-toothed tigers, giant cave-bears roaming these hills.  Once we made them into barbecue, and hat-racks and nice winter coats for the Missus, the place was empty.  The vacuum started calling out for big critters.
Jeb shook his head.  "Okay.  If you say so.  I just wish Mark was back.  We are breaking some kind of law being here."
"I just hope you are right."
Bud looked up at the sound of a tree branch breaking in the distance, "I know I'm right... Did you hear that?  Mark must be coming down the ravine."
The two of them got to their feet and looked expectantly in the direction of the ravine.  The branches shook and parted with a squeal as the head poked into the clearing.  Bird eyes the size of cantaloupes looked at the two men with a quizzical stare, first from one side of the massive beak, and then the other.
Jeb poked Bud with his rifle.  Bud seemed frozen as the head started rising, breaking free of the low trees until it towered thirty feet over them. Meleagris Rex watched as the two former top predators started running.  "Gobble-gobble" it rumbled as it started after them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's a Wonderful Morning - Part 3 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

"Hugh, can you target him?"
Hugh nodded, and popped open the glove compartment.  The targeting scope and controls unfolded into has hands.  He tapped a button and the headlights dropped away, to land in some cotton field far below.  There was still another hum -- like the big brother of a charging photo-flash unit.  Ken tried to hold a steady course.
Hugh locked on the speeding boat, and the twin lasers flashed multi-gigajoule pulses.  No ship could outrace light itself.
There was a flash above, and a cloud of vapor.
"No," said Hugh after the plasma dissipated enough to let a radar pulse through.  "It didn't take him out."
Perry giggled again.  "Ha. Ha.  Ab.  Ablative shielding!"
Hugh charged up the lasers again, but the distance was greater, and less of the escape boat's burn-away shielding was consumed.  "No good."
"Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha."  Perry was like a kid, tormenting his captors.
Hugh turned to the back seat and snarled.  "Did you ever wonder why so many of you BC's showed up on the Jerry Springer show?  We wanted to test your personalities under all kinds of stress situations.  One thing we learned very well.  You are not nice people.  We don't like you.  You would have made horrible conquerors."
Perry looked shocked.  His eyes started to shine with tears.
Ken gasped.  Hugh turned back to the radar.    He probed through the new cloud of vapor.  "He's gone.  The ship exploded."
Perry moaned.  "Oh!  Poor Gueeseet.  He must have lost his Tums."
Ken glanced at the collection of junk from Perry's pocket.  There were two rolls of Tums, one peeled open and partially consumed.
He asked, pleasantly, "Perry, why do you eat Tums?"
"Have to."  He grinned.
"Do you want some of these?"
"Yes.  No."
"What happens when you don't take them?"
Perry giggled.  "Gas.  Lots and lots and lots of gas."
"All at once?"
"Yes.  Oops.  Wasn't supposed to tell."
"If you don't take the Tums, you explode?"
"Aw.  You guessed it.  Wouldn't want an autopsy, you know."
Hugh peeled off a tablet and pushed it towards Perry's mouth.  "Here, eat this."
Perry twisted and squirmed, clamping his jaws tightly shut.  Hugh climbed, once again, into the back seat.  Ken concentrated on piloting the Suburbanator.  They had climbed so high and so fast that the sky was black.  Unfortunately, their engine was strictly a cold-fusion powered jet engine, not a rocket, and there was no atmosphere to run it.
With the lack of thrust, they were in free fall, and Hugh's struggle was complicated by the zero-g.
"Any luck?"  He called over his shoulder.
"No!  He has the jaw muscles of a bulldog."
"Knock him out.  Force them down."
"How?  I can't make him swallow."
"Perry!  How much time to we have?"
He stubbornly shook his head.  Ken looked back and saw the look on his face.  Perry wasn't looking at him.  He was looking past him.  Ken turned back.  The clock.  Perry was watching the clock?
Ken tapped the console.  "Ruth!  Can you read me?"
"Yes Ken.  What's the problem?  Ground tracking saw you take out the escape boat."
"We didn't!  The BC's have a suicide bomb in their stomach.  They have to keep taking antacid tablets to keep it stable.  The escapee's bomb took out his whole ship.  Notify Headquarters."
"Oh Ken!  There have been a number of reports of explosions.  We have lost thousands.  The word has gone out to strip the captives of everything, in case they had hidden bombs."
"Tell them!"
"Okay.  Perry?"
"We're working on it!"
Ken looked out at the black sky, and the blazingly bright blue white expanse of home below.  Up at the edge of the atmosphere, like them, a ship-to-ship battle raged.  The dancing white spots of engines, and the even brighter flashes of ships being destroyed made a breathtaking fireworks display unlike anything he had ever seen.  Play hard Billy.
"No luck."
"Get back up here.  We don't have any time."
After a pained sigh, Hugh said, "Last chance Perry!"
Perry stuck out his lower lip and shook his head.
Hugh sailed lightly, in the zero-g, back into his front seat position, and strapped himself in.
Ken put a finger on a button.  He looked at Hugh.  The eyes staring back showed raw fear and raw courage.  His own were probably the same.
"Ready.  One.  Two.  Yell!"
He pushed the button and they both began a long drawn out scream.  The left rear door of the Suburbanator snapped open, and the whole seat assembly launched sideways out the door, seats, straps, and Perry.  All the air inside rushed out with him.
Their yell went on and on, as they emptied their lungs to the vacuum.
Ken felt his stomach bloat and pressure behind his ears.  The roar and screams went to silence.  Ken tried to concentrate on the second counter on the dashboard clock.  For some reason each tick took hours.
The return of sound, and the return of air forced his glance back to the empty gap behind him, and the closed door.  He gasped air eagerly, welcome for the blast coming from the air-conditioner vent.
"Ken" -- there was a faint voice, lost in the roar.
"Ken, do you hear me."  He could hear her voice, but all he could do was gasp.
"Ken!  Can you hear me?"  The returning air made the panic in Ruth's words clear.
"Ruth!"  Ken gasped.  "We are okay."
"What about Perry?"
"Jettisoned.  See if ground tracking can find him."
Ruth relayed the request.
"Ken, are you okay?"
He didn't really know.  He was grateful for the after-effects of the vacuum.  It distracted him from what he did to Perry.
"I'm fine.  Hugh is fine.  I'm starting to pick up air in the engine.  The controls are starting to respond."
"Come on home."
"I'll do that."
Ken looked at Hugh.  He looked sick too.
Off to the left, there was the noiseless flash of an explosion.  Perry's time had run out.
Hugh mumbled.  "Self defense."
Ken nodded.  "War time."
Ken pulled into the driveway.  Molly was sitting on the back porch, talking into her portable phone.  She got to her feet.
He turned off the key, and the sudden silence was oppressive.  As he pulled himself out of the car, he realized that he ached all over.
"Momma will be home in a few minutes.  She just called to warn us that they will be cutting the power."  She handed him the phone, "Say hello to Jean Louis."
He took the phone and exchanged bonjour's with the young man on the other end.  He hugged his daughter and handed the phone back.
"Why the power outage?"
"One of the BC's big ships broke through the line and they're going to use the Resonator."
He nodded.  "And Billy?"
"Still shooting and having a wonderful time.  I don't think he has realized that it's a real war."
"Good.  He shouldn't have too.  Not yet."
Molly spoke a few words in French to her European contact and then asked, "Should I be worried about the uninterruptable power supply on the computer?"
He shrugged.  "Either the UPS will work, or it won't.  There is nothing we can do either way.  Hugh is staying for lunch."
Molly nodded to the man.  "It won't be much, we have been kind of busy."
"Anything is fine."
"I've got to run to a wall phone," she apologized, waving the portable.  It would work when the power went down.
Her father nodded, "Go."
Ruth arrived a couple of minutes later, still talking into her head-set as she parked her car.  Ken gave her a hug.
"Blackout in ten seconds."  She looked tense.
"Where is the BC ship?"
"Near Fredericksburg."
Oh no.  His thoughts immediately turned to the granite mountain near that town.
"You think they know about the base inside Enchanted Rock?"
She shrugged.
From inside the house, there was the sound of the alarm on the UPS.  The house air-conditioner went silent.
Ken looked off to the west, but there would be nothing to see. All of the electrical power distribution system in Central Texas was being switched over to its alternate task.  The power generators of the area started pulsing the intricate grid of wires in a sweeping frequency range.  Computers watched the power coupling effects, and locked into the perfect frequency to feed Megawatts of power into the attacking ship.  Once locked on, the signal was modulated to cause the very metal walls of the ship to ring.
Ruth put her hand to the earpiece.  "It's working.  Spotters are reporting aurora effects around the ship.  The sound, even at ground level is deafening...Someone is reporting a flash.  Their weapons systems are malfunctioning.  Big explosion."  She looked at him.  "It's coming down."
There was a flash of light off to the west.  Ken tried to make it out, but it was too far to see any details.
Ruth kept talking, "Lots of reports of fires.  Dispatchers are moving rescue workers into the area.  Not my zone, thank God.  Some reports of metal chunks falling out of the sky.  It's gone."
Ken asked, "Any more BC ships?"
"Just small stuff.  Billy and his friends are taking care of those.  It's all over but the clean up."
Power came back on, and the annoying whine of the UPS went away.
Molly came back out with her portable phone, "Europe is now clear.  Asia predicts completion in another hour or less.  Everyone else is still looking to see if there is anyone left to fight."
Hugh eased into a chair.  "I don't think I'll make it in to the plant today.  Morning has been good enough."
Ken nodded, "It has been a good morning, a wonderful morning."
Molly poked her head out the door.  "We've got hamburger.  If someone would fire up the grill."
Hugh waved his hand and got to his feet.  "I'll do it."
Ken watched as Hugh rolled out the gas grill from the porch.  "Make sure you've got the safety on."
Hugh nodded.  They didn't need it to be anything but a gas grill.  Not anymore.

Monday, September 19, 2011

It's a Wonderful Morning - Part 2 of 3

© 2011 by Henry Melton

Perry's face went blank, literally unreadable.  He strained frantically at the seatbelt.  Hugh nodded to Ken, and he touched a switch on the air-conditioner.  White fumes flooded out of the vents, and the air reeked of acetone.
Ken's nose wrinkled up at the smell, but Perry acted like he was kicked by a mule.  Hugh unclicked his seatbelt and climbed over the top of the seats, one hand holding a hypodermic.
There was no struggle.  Once the drug took effect, Ken opened the windows to get rid of the acetone vapors.
He pressed another switch on the console.
"Yes Daddy."
"Are the international circuits still up?"
"Yes, there was a glitch right when the bomb went off, but the hardened lines work fine."
"Good.  We have our captive.  Do you have the numbers?"
"Under lock and key in my diary."
"Fine.  Send our report to Interpol HQ."
"Will do."  She clicked off.
Ken pulled back onto the road.  Perry was groggy, but he managed to ask, "What's going on?"
Ken glanced back at the work Hugh was doing, re-positioning the other seatbelts into a rather tidy web of restraints holding Perry in place.  The contents of his pockets were dumped onto the center console, but nothing looked more lethal than a roll of antacids.
"Calm down Perry.  There is nothing more that you can do.  The invasion force from Beta Centauri 4 has attacked.  You, as an enemy alien, have been arrested by the Earth Defense Force.  When this is all over, you will probably be traded back to your people, so relax and enjoy the scenery.  You won't be seeing much more Earth countryside after today."
"You knew?"
Hugh laughed.  "Perry, your people watch too much TV.  Earth has known about the coming invasion since the Eisenhower administration.  Did you think we wouldn't be ready?"
Perry was having trouble holding himself upright.  Muscle relaxants were keeping him more immobile than the straps.  The Beta Centauri customized truth serum was having its effect as well.  He started blubbering.
"I don't believe it.  We have agents, all over the place.  We would have known."
Hugh said, "We know about your agents, all 200,000 of them.  All with good buddies ready to take care of them, just like we are taking care of you."
The car radio clicked on.  It was Ruth.  "Ken, are you okay?"
"We are just fine.  Just like clockwork."
"Molly called in with confirmation on your report.  Local agent captures are already in the high ninety percents."
"Good to hear it.  Anything you want to say to Perry?"
Ken got a shiver from the tone of her voice.  Mothers were the most deadly creatures on the planet when their blood was up.
Then, there were other voices in the background.
Ruth asked, "Ken, what is your location?  The primary GPS transponders haven't recovered from the EMP."  Her voice was all business.  Hutto Band Boosters were the primary dispatchers for the area north of Austin proper.
"Half way to Manor from the dam."
"We just got a no-report from one of the Pflugerville teams.  They haven't activated the main comm link."
"Gueeseet.  He got away."  Perry offered, with a giggle.
Ken pulled up a map to replace the instrument gauges.  "We are going to assist.  Notify air command."
"Wilco.  Ken, be careful.  Watch the restricted zones."
"I will."
He tapped commands on the displayed keyboard, and the whole sound of the vehicle changed.  It was if a dragon had been sleeping under the floorboard and suddenly awoke.
"Hugh, get up here."
He climbed back into the front seat and strapped himself in.  Ken pressed on the accelerator, and the Suburbanator took off.
"Whoo," came the response from the back seat as they climbed a thousand feet in thirty seconds.
"Are you okay back there?"
"You can't do this."
"Sure we can.  Did you ever wonder why there were so many SUV's?  It is all camouflage so we can keep these enhanced air/land hybrids on the road.  A flight engine is too large to hide in a Geo Metro."
Ken banked to the left to avoid the air space over Manor.
Hugh pointed, "Look, they are taking off."
Perry cried, "What is that?"
In the little town of Manor were two water towers.  The new one, like a giant golfball on a tee, was climbing rapidly on a long column of superheated water vapor.  The old metal tower, made famous when it was climbed by Leonardo Di Caprio in the movie "What's Eating Gilbert Grape", was lumbering skyward at a slower pace, balanced on its cluster of smaller engines.
"Those are air to space interceptors.  That is the cause of the water pressure drop this morning.  Do you really think we needed all of these water towers?  A cheaper, smaller, ground tank and a regulated water pump could to the job just as well.  That is what we switched over to this morning.  Phase 2 cold fusion is wonderful.  No standby radiation.  A little engine package and a tower full of water for exhaust mass makes a wonderful rocket engine.
"Look over there,"  he pointed over towards Austin, where there were too many white columns of vapor to count.  "And over there."  Pflugerville and Round Rock were sending their contributions to space.  Everywhere you could look, from every city and town, interceptors were rising.
"Perry, I hope you don't have any family on the invasion transports.  They won't be landing."
Their captive was whimpering.  "Cold fusion?"
Ken nodded.  "Yes, it was quite a scare when Pons and Fleischmann discovered it independently.  We were afraid there would be someone who would confirm their report that couldn't be hushed up."
Hugh asked, "Perry, what will Gueeseet be doing now?"
There was no response for a moment, then he said, "I hope he makes it to the garage."
"What garage Perry?  Where is it?"
"He will get to the boat.  He will get away."
"Is the boat in the garage?  Perry, listen to me.  Where is the garage?"
"Private Warehouse.  Looks like a boat."
Ken banked to the right.  "I know the place."  He touched the console.
"Ruth, are you there?"
"Yes.  What do you need?"
"I think that the missing agent may try to reach an escape vehicle disguised as a boat, currently stored at a self-storage place on Highway 685, 'Private Warehouse'.  We are en route.  Get a ground team there."
He had made the request according to procedure, but a minute later they were already decelerating, dropping down for a landing on the four-lane road.  The tires squealed as they touched down, and Ken was very glad for the computer assisted steering.
They had barely slowed to a hundred, when Hugh pointed at a glow coming from the cluster of low storage buildings behind a chain-link fence.  A canvas-covered Larson ski boat was rising from the parking lot of old cars, trailers, motor-homes and boats.  It hovered for just a moment and then pointed bow up and accelerated.  The canvas fell free.
"Go go, Gueeseet!  Get away, get away."
Ken jammed on the accelerator.  There wasn't much of the road ahead before it veered to the side at the bridge, but there was no choice.  The dragon under the floor growled and his stomach sank to the floor as they arced skyward.
"You'll never catch him.  Escape boats are fast."
"I don't know about that."  The G-forces as they arced skyward were pushing the maximum that he could handle, but it was important to get every last BC spy.  No telling what damage a rogue could do with the technology at hand.
Perry's confidence wavered, "What's that?  Are they chasing Gueeseet, too?"
Ken glanced towards Round Rock, where hundreds of specks of light were rising in formation.
Hugh said, "No, those are air-to-air fighters.  Robotic.  They are coming from the car dealer lots.  Did you ever wonder why car dealers had hundreds of shiny new cars on their lot when they never seemed to sell more than a handful at a time.  They replaced inventory regularly, all the others were just waiting for the right remote commands.  Some of your ships must have survived the interceptors.  Those cars will engage them in the air."
Ken added, "My son is driving some of them."
"Billy?"  asked Perry incredulously.
"Yes.  You've heard of Commander?  It's a multiplayer, first person shooter game, where the players are connected via the Internet.  Well, this morning, Commander and all the other Internet games shifted to a new level.  The best-trained remote-control operators on the planet are now joined en mass, piloting those fighter drones.  They should see some seriously new high scores."
Ken could not hide the pride in his voice -- pride for his family, pride for the human race.  But it couldn't be denied that the ski-boat was accelerating faster than the Suburbanator.