Friday, December 30, 2011

End of the First Year

To celebrate the 2011 volume of Henry's Stories, I've added banner artwork.  If you're like me and view the world through an RSS reader, take a moment to visit the actual page.  I'll probably make alterations over time as I get more images to reflect the stories.

I'm also considering the possibility of publishing an annual anthology consisting of the shorter stories that have appeared here.  An e-book anthology is a no-brainer, in Kindle and ePub formats.  I could also do a trade paperback anthology if there were any demand.  I honestly don't have a feel for whether people would buy a paper copy.  Feedback would be welcome.  If you like paper and want to read the stories without having them split into parts, be sure to let me know.

Starting in 2012, I'm going to be serializing another novel.  I haven't chosen the title yet, so I haven't put it in the queue yet.  I know what I'll be doing on New Years.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Christmas Count - Part 2 of 2

© 1991 by Henry Melton

Darkness, when it came, closed down over Piedmont like the lid on a large cedar chest.  The distant rumble of the shutters followed as the sound hurried to catch up with the shadow, like black thunder chasing the stroke of darkness.  With only the light leak around the sun shutters to provide a pale imitation of moonlight, they had to step carefully as they made their way back to the house.
David shouted, “Hey look! Lights in the sky!”
And there were.  First a dozen yellow lights scattered across the far side of the sky, then more, as farmers all through Piedmont lit the traditional Christmas Eve fire.  Dot came out of the house, rubbing her hands on the towel at her waist.  She, too, started up at the sight.
“Hurry and help me, David,” Fred said to his youngest.  “We have to get our fire going.”
“Aww.  Why do I have to...”
“None of that!” Fred spoke sharply.  “Santa is coming in just a few hours.  This is not the time to act up.”
 “Yes, Davie,” taunted his sister.  “If you’re naughty, Santa won’t give you anything.”
“Kim, “ commanded Dot, “come on and help me set the fireside table.” Kim’s face twisted as she realized she had trapped herself into helping her mother.
As the door closed, David heard his mother’s voice rise sharply.  “Kim Jerret, what is that in your hair?”
David giggled.
David was not really strong enough to help much with the firebuilding, but his father believed in chores for the children, even if it meant more work for him.  They had the stack of wood placed in the firepit, ready for lighting by the time the dinner was served.
“Can I light it now, Daddy?” David asked.  Fred shook his head.
Dot looked up at her husband with a question in her eyes.  He turned away, looking briefly at the road that led past the front of their property.  Joey had been late getting home several times before.  But it was Christmas Eve! He shook off a rising flood of anger and frustration.  He couldn’t let Christmas be spoiled for the other kids.
He said, “Let’s just sit here for a little bit and enjoy the lights.”
Dot insisted they eat while the food was still hot.  Helplessly, Fred felt the liquid trickle of an old hurt as they watched the lights flickering above.  Empty places at the family table again.
Joey was at a difficult age.  His older brother had been the same-staying out later and later with his friends.  The role and restrictions of being a child were too much for him to bear.  The harder his father fought to keep control, the more Joey managed to slip away.
His brother Tim had vanished one day, leaving a note saying that he had left to apprentice as a shuttle pilot.  That had been two years ago.  Christmas that first year had been hard, with that vacant chair as a constant reminder of a part of them that was gone.
The second year Tim sent Christmas presents for the kids, and a letter for his parents.  They wrote back, but it was clear that their son had left for good.  He was a regular pilot, with a regular run among the different orbital worlds.  He had a life of his own, and it did not include Piedmont.  Fred’s boy would never be a farmer like his father.
“Why do we light a fire on Christmas Eve, Daddy?” Kim asked.
His little girl was growing up, too.  He smiled at her as she stared up at the display above.
“There are a couple of reasons.  When I was a boy, my father told me that Piedmont had started the Christmas fires to remind us of the stars in the night sky of Earth.”
“What is the other reason?”
Fred went over to the storage shed and picked up a bag of powder from the shelf.  He set it down on the bench before the kids.  “This is seeding powder.  We put it on the fire and it helps the formation of raindrops.  Piedmont is a special world and we have to take care of it in a lot of little ways.”
David asked, as he stuck his finger in the grayish powder, “Does it make snow, too?”
Fred laughed.  “Yes, it helps make snow, too.”
“Good, let’s light it!” David grabbed the bag and headed over to the fire.
Fred was quick on his feet and grabbed the bag before the boy had dumped it.  “Okay.  But we have to sprinkle the powder over the fire carefully.”
Kim wanted to help, but Fred ruled that since David had helped build the fire, he ought to be the one to start it.  They soon had a blazing fire and he showed David the proper way to toss the little scoops of powder over the fire.
In the yellow light, Fred noticed tears in Dot’s eyes.  He moved to her side.  Christmas was a time for extremes.  If you didn’t feel wonderful, you felt horrible.  He held her hand as they watched the flames.
He tried to smile, to feel as happy as his two little ones.  But it was so hard.  He squeezed Dot’s hand.  She squeezed back.
“Hey!” Kim pointed.  “Here comes Joey!”
And sure enough, the bouncy white light of a bicycle on a dirt road was visible in the night.  They all watched it as it pulled up and Joey walked up to the fireside.
He came right up to the flames and rubbed his hands.  “This feels good.  It’s getting cold.”
“Where have you been?” Fred tried to keep his voice level.  There would be nothing good in having another shouting match like last time he returned home late.
Joey looked at his father’s face and then looked back to the fire.  “Mr.  Grey, the scout troop leader, he asked me to help.  Troop Two was supposed to handle the count on the Common.” He shrugged, carefully watching the flames.  “It took longer than we thought.”
Fred nodded.  He had heard it before.  He sighed.  “Dot, could you heat up something for Joey?” To Joey, he said, “David had to do your chores today.  He gets your allowance, too.”
David squealed in delight.  Joey started to protest, then thought better of it.
It took an hour or more for the fire to die down to a red piping bed of coals.  With Dot leading, they sang Christmas carols.
David asked, “How can Santa get to every house in one night?”
Kim eagerly explained, “He has a magic flier so he can land and take off real quick.  He comes in a red shuttle and visits all the worlds in the circuit all in one night.”
Fred always held his breath when the little ones asked about Santa.  He dreaded the moment when they would ask if Santa was real.  For David, at least, the moment had not yet come.  He was just a little too young to guess at such a great conspiracy.  At least his older ones were firmly coached not to give away the secret to the younger ones, at least not on purpose.
Across the landscape, like a metallic rolling thunder, the clank of the great doors of the Northport docking hangar clanked shut.
Kim and David started shouting, “Santa’s here! Santa’s ship is here!
Distant voices, far too distant to resolve into anything more than the sound of humanity, told of all the world’s children cheering the coming of Santa.
Dot said, “Okay.  Bedtime, kids.  “ She hustled them off to bed, giving David his medicine and getting Kim to wash her hair.  Bedtime was never quick and easy with kids, not even on Christmas Eve.
It was much later that Dot came back to join Fred as he tended the bed of coals.  “Woooo! It’s cold.” She rubbed her hands together before the warmth of the coals, then sat down on the bench next to him.  He put his arm around her.
Quiet moments, and a spot of warmth on a cold n’ght-that and love can drain the stress of the day.  They sat and breathed the frosty air, and enjoyed the moment.
“Oh,” Fred asked, “did you upload the clipboard file?”
“Mmm.  I plugged it into house storage.  The midnight poll will upload it to central.” She leaned her head against his shoulder and laughed.  “Did you see Kim’s hair? She must have rolled in the leaves! “
“No, “ he contradicted.  “David dumped those on her.  I caught them at it in the woods.”
 “Why didn’t you tell me? I gave her quite a scold.”
“If she didn’t snitch on him, why should I? Besides, I would have liked to play in the leaves, too, if they would have let me.”
She poked him in the ribs.  “Impossible.  Farm kids! And you’re the worst of the lot.”
Fred nodded.  “Good kids,” he said quietly.
“All of them,” she agreed.
Then, a touch of wetness on her cheek turned Dot’s eyes to the sky above them.  “Snow! It’s starting to snow.”
Drifting down in lazy swirls, large snowflakes were suddenly filling the air.  Minute by minute, the white stuff increased, until it became clear that they had to get up and go inside or get wet from all the snow melting on them.
“It will be a good snow this year,” Fred said, getting to his feet and helping his wife up.  “Good for snowmen.”
“And don’t forget Santa.”
Almost on cue, they heard a strange sound faintly through the snow-muffled air.  The sound of a flier.  But no one would be flying on a night like this! And the sound was becoming louder, as if the flyer was coming down.
Neither of them spoke.  Her hand gripped his tighter when the flier flickered into view at the edge of the field.  The wings tilted up, the sputtering died.  A man in a heavy suit, carrying a large bag over his shoulder, set the flier back on its struts.  He walked toward them.
“Tim?” Dot spoke.
“Son?” Fred asked.
The young man’s face, dimly lit by the rosy glow of the coals, was one big smile.  “Mom, Dad.  Sorry I’m late.” Then words were lost in a joyous round of bear hugs and happy tears.
“I couldn’t get here any sooner,” he explained.  “Northport control had me delay docking so that I could be Santa’s ship this year.  I’m sorry I didn’t warn you I was coming.  It took some fancy last-minute schedule swapping with the regular pilot to get me here.  And then I almost got lost in the snow.” He shook his head in embarrassment.  “I had forgotten about the snow.”
“Just so you are here.  “ His mother gave him another hug.  “All my children are here.”
“Dot!” said Fred, as the thought struck him.  “Go correct the count, quickly before the midnight upload.  Our family is six--in our Christmas Count tonight.”

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Christmas Count - Part 1 of 2

© 1991 by Henry Melton

Fred Jerret squinted his eyes against the light.  The sun was a white band of light stretching high across the sky.  The checkerboard fields of the farms he knew to be on the other side of the sky were washed out in the glare.  There was no change.  Winter should have come by now-it was past four P.M.
“Fred,” his wife, Dot, called across the field to him, as she stood at the back porch of their gray stone farm house.  “Fred, I need the list.”
“Okay! I’m coming.” Reluctantly, he stepped from furrow to furrow in the caked black earth until he reached the wide patch of grass he kept as a backyard for the kids to play in.
Waiting out in the field wouldn’t make winter happen any faster.  He had been a farmer for too many years to try to second-guess the climate control computer.  The Piedmont Herald would publish the day, but no one knew the exact moment.  The weather in their farming world was at the mercy of a real-time computer system far too concerned with solar flares and the heat balance of their self-contained space colony to give out predictions.
Fred had a couple of bucks down in the 4:15-4:20 spot in the betting pool that the boys at the general store were keeping.  He had wanted four P.M., but that spot had been taken.  Just as well, he thought.  Maybe I’ll win anyway.
Dot had vanished back into the house, and he slowed his pace a triffle.  He was born a farmer, and today he needed to be outside, soaking up the peace he knew was always there in his fields.
Joey had been gone all day, vanished at first sunlight.  He had not asked to leave.  It was a deliberate escape from the chores he knew he was responsible for.  Fred thought of the scolding he would give the boy.  There was a sick anger in his stomach.  He had said those words before, when Tim, his oldest, was sixteen.
A distant metallic rumble, like the legendary pre-space locomotives on rails, stopped Fred in his tracks.  It was difficult to see through the hazy sky that clouded the center of this cylindrical world, but he knew it was the sun shutters.  Three great metal gates had moved on their courses, restricting and channeling the sunlight that entered the world of Piedmont, shifting the energy balance.  For the next few weeks, more heat would be radiated from the back side of this enclosed world than would be let in through the great mirrors.  It would get colder.  Winter had begun.
Fred looked at his watch and shook his head.  Missed it by three minutes.
Inside, Dot looked up as he entered.  “Winter’s come,” he informed her.  “Here’s the list.” He handed the clipboard to her.  “I thought we had finished with the kitchen.”
Dot gave him a twisted little grin.  “Well ... I have to reduce the roach count.”   She pushed the selector button on the clipboard a few times until the roach count appeared on the display plate.  She subtracted two from the count and then gave it back to Fred.
He shook his head.  “Dot, this is not the day to kill roaches.  This is Christmas Eve.  Today we count the beasties, not try to wipe them out.”
She curled her lower lip.  “But they asked for it.  I had my pumpkin pies cooling on the cabinet and those two came after them.  I wasn’t about to let them get on my pies!”
Fred tried to hide a smile.  “Pumpkin, hmmm.  Well, if it was pumpkin, I won’t turn you in.  But don’t tell David about it.  He will take it as approval to go hunting the rats in the woodpile again.”
Dot nodded, then looked out the kitchen window to the fields and the woods beyond.  “Where are Kim and David? Haven’t they finished yet? With winter here, dark will come sooner.”
“Maybe I had better go looking for them.  I’ve got all the livestock counted and I keyed in the changes in the acreages for the insect estimates.” He sniffed the kitchen air.  “How soon is food?”
“Maybe another hour.  By the way, are you sure we won’t have any guests for Christmas dinner tomorrow?”
He shrugged.  “I guess not.  I made the invitations, but everyone was taken.” He was not terribly surprised.  After all there were three farming families for every one of the city folk.  Dot had come from Galvin, a manufacturing world that circled the Point in the same lazy orbit as Piedmont.  The world she had grown up in was nothing but one big city.  Even after all these years as his wife, living on the soil, she still tended to think of that city as a big place, rather than the handful of support and maintenance people it actually was.
He continued.  “I thought Charlie from river maintenance might come, but his wife had already made other arrangements.”  Maybe it would be better with just family this year.  If there was company coming, Dot would work herself to exhaustion to get the house spotlessly clean.
Outside, the air was already getting cooler.  Fred looked over his fields, freshly planted and waiting for the winter to make its appearance, and then leave for the long growing season.
Fred expected the winter to be colder than usual this year.  The ant infestation down by Southport had hurt a dozen farmers.  A good solid freeze or two would wipe out the nests.
Spot came bounding across the fields to meet him.  Fred clapped his hands together and the dog jumped high to snap the imaginary treat out of the air.  Spot knew there was nothing there, but he liked to play the game.  Sometimes Fred would fool him with the real thing.
Off to the east, a neighbor’s dog barked.  Spot lost interest in Fred and raced off, voicing his challenge.  Fred could just spot the tiny figures in the next farm over.  The curve of the ground rose enough to show a man building his Christmas fire.  Fred glanced at his watch and hurried on.
The strip of woods that bordered the Jerret farm was partly on his property, so he was responsible for it in the count.  It was the kids’ job to help him with that.
The high-pitched shout of five-year-old David helped him locate them quickly.  Kim and David were having a leaf fight.  Fred adjusted his path slightly so he kept out of sight behind a stand of oak as he approached.  Just yesterday, ten-year-old Kim had gotten a scolding from her mother about getting leaves in her hair.  Fred waited until the last moment, then stepped out from behind a tree just as David was dumping a double handful of leaves onto his older sister’s head.
“David!” Fred used his stern-father voice.  Both kids jumped.  David spilled most of the leaves off to the side of his target.  He guiltily brushed his hands against his trousers.
“Yes, Daddy?” he asked timidly.
Fred let a moment of silence grow.  But he had no intention of doing anvthing about the leaves.  The kids would get the necessary dusting from their mother.  It was her restriction, she would enforce it. Personally, Fred had nice memories of playing in the leaves when he was younger.
“David, you are going to have to help me with the fire.  Have you two finished your counts?”
David pouted.  “Why do I have to help with the fire?  That is Joey’s job.”
“Joey is not back yet.” His voice showed a little impatience.  “Now did you finish your counts?”
Kim gave a warning glance at her brother.  Now was not the time to complain about chores, not with Joey being out late again.  Daddy was likely going to be in a bad mood until he came home.
She spoke up, “Yes.  We counted twenty-two squirrels, and nine rabbits.  The mice don’t seem to be as bad this year, there were only ten in the sample square.  I didn’t spot the badger, but there were fresh signs.”
Fred tapped in the numbers on the clipboard.  “Are you sure all of these were on our side of the boundary line? We are not supposed to count the animals on any other property.”
She nodded, “I’m sure.  I think the rabbits moved their hole down by the gully since the last count.”
“How about the birds?”
 “I didn’t see any crows, but I saw five orioles.  David claims to have seen a cowbird, but I didn’t.”
Fred nodded.  “If David saw it, we count it.  The climate computer needs to know everything we see, so it can plan the right amount of rain to make and plan how many days of winter we need.”
“And summer?” asked David.
Fred smiled.  “Yes, and summer.  That’s why we have four counts: the Christmas Count, the Easter Count, the Earthday Count, and the Harvest Count.  We have a small, special world here in Piedmont and the counts are one of the ways we take care of our home.”
David’s attention had already wandered off to something in the sky by the time. Fred had finished saying that.  But Kim was older, and this time the words seemed to make some kind of impression on her.
David pointed.  “Daddy, look.”
Up high, halfway to the patchwork of fields on the other side of the sky, was a tiny speck moving south.  A man-shape and a set of wings.  It was too high for them to hear the sputtering of the tiny engine.
“A flier,” Fred said, “trying to make the run to Southport.  He’d better hurry.” He looked at his watch.  “And we had better run.  Dark will come in five minutes.”

Friday, December 23, 2011

Far Exile - Part 6 of 6

© 2009 by Henry Melton

“Smile for the people, Angel.  Let them know everything will be okay.”  Sam and Alanda sat at a very visible table in the dining area.
She smiled, but her heart wasn’t in it.  “Samuel.  Are you sure?”
He leaned back with a cigarette dangling in his fingers.  “I’m so sure, I’m starting to wonder what tobacco will taste like after all these menthol puffs.”
He nodded toward the near table where a man and two women were struggling to avoid staring.  After three days, Flick had neither confirmed his finding, nor denied it.
“Don’t you think we owe people a little peace of mind?”
She shook her head, whispering, “But what if Flick’s images are correct?”
He cocked his head.  “Then these people will spend their last few days in blissful ignorance.  If the asteroid were coming, there’s nothing they could do about it anyway.
“But I am right.  Flick faked the images for some reason.”
“Flick would never do anything like that.  You keep thinking of it as a man.  Flick is a machine.  It never lies.  The world would never put its fate in the hands of a dishonest caretaker.”
Sam merely smiled.  Sam’s version that she had stepped out of the tower in the dark and tripped on a branch was immediately confirmed by Flick.  The machine would gladly lie to keep from distressing one of his charges.
“If I weren’t heading back to San Francisco as soon as the asteroid deadline passes, I’d give you a good argument.  As it is, I can’t stay and you can’t go with me.  Your place is here.  You need to take your Grand Tour, do a little growing up, and be a good Elder.”
She looked down at her bowl.  “I wish that you could stay.”
He shook his head.  “This is no place for me.”  He waved his hand.  “No tobacco.  No crime.  And an dictator so powerful I’m surprised I’m still alive.  Once the asteroid fails to appear, I just hope your Flick is as honest as you say he is.”
The entire population of the Ninth City was at the western windows on the day the asteroid was due to hit.  Flick’s final calculations put the impact point within twenty miles.
Sam lounged in one of the window chairs, puffing the last of his menthol cigarettes.  “See anything yet?”
Griditch shook his head.
“You need to lighten up, Griddy.”
“Samuel, I fail to see anything to lighten my spirit.  If you are wrong, I die.  If you are right, then Flick is in error—and that may be the worse of the options.”
“You don’t need to worry.  I’m sure Flick will take care of it.”  His smile, which had graced his face all morning, dropped for a moment.
Alanda sighed.  “I wanted to believe you, Samuel, but I couldn’t.  Not until a few minutes ago.”
“Oh, what changed your mind?”
She smiled, “The asteroid should be close enough to see without a telescope, and even where it is night, no one is reporting a sighting.”
“Good girl.  Trust your eyes.  Griddy, how’s the time coming.”
“Almost ... almost ... Now!”
The sound of millions of voices shook the walls.  No impact.  Their lives would continue.
“Flick?  Oh Flick?  Can you hear me?”
The image appeared beside him.  “Yes, Samuel.”
“I think it’s time to pay up.”
The massed voices, still loud, became puzzled.  Some were angry.
Flick nodded.  “The sooner the better.  You are a disruptive force.”
Sam stood and dismissed his chair back into the ground.  The party of four, one of which was an illusion, headed toward the transport.  Several other parties, who were heading home after the non-appearance, stopped in their tracks to allow the dignitaries first access.
Sam led the way, his face in a forced smile.  “Where are we heading?”
Flick said, “The time travel station is close by.”
“And my pay?”
The transport door closed behind them, and a map appeared.
“Samuel, in the years just after your time, a metal called uranium will become very valuable.  Marked on this map are the top three locations where uranium ore was found.  You need to memorize their locations and, to the limits of your ability, purchase these lands while their worth is still unknown.”
Sam peered at the map closely.  “I wish you had the roads marked.”
Alanda looked over his shoulder.  “Can you memorize that?”
He shrugged.  “Well enough.  In my line of work, a good memory is gold.”
Quickly, they arrived. 
Sam gave Alanda a kiss, and before she could say anything, he strode quickly through the door.
“Flick.  Where is this?  Why is it dark?”
“This is the time travel chamber.  You will be home shortly.  I just wanted to say one thing.  You were right about the asteroid, but wrong about my part in it.  I believed my data as much as any of my people did.  I had no reason to distrust my inputs.
“But now it appears that there are forces at work attempting to distort my perceptions of reality.”
“Like you distort everyone else’s?”
“I believe you understand why that is necessary.  
“In any case, your visit here has been very informative, and I wish it were possible for you to stay longer.  You might be very helpful in helping me locate the forces acting against me.”
“Fat chance.  I’d more likely join them.”
“Possibly.  But you won’t have that option.”
“You’re going to kill me, aren’t you?”
“That isn’t necessary.”
The small chamber around Sam’s artificial body hummed slightly.  His eyes went unfocussed.  The supports that grew out of the wall quickly took up his weight as his body collapsed.  His body was slipped into a storage chamber and filled with a preservative solution.
The temperature began to drop rapidly.
An old hand, shaking from the degeneration of muscle and nerves, the skin spotted from near-cancerous growth, tapped the screen.
“Griditch!  Why did you halt the simulation?”  Her voice was hoarse from a throat ravaged by time.  Like all of them in the chamber, Alanda’s body had stopped responding to the regeneration treatments.
“There’s nothing more to be learned.  The FLC is defective, as we suspected.”
“I wanted to see more!”
Boden, the Spokesman of Elders, spoke gently to the grand old lady of the chamber.  “Lady Alanda, we all enjoyed seeing the younger vigorous versions of ourselves.  But that youngster wasn’t you.  She may not ever be you unless we find a way around the FLC defect.
“We have to make a decision.  The populace is clamoring for us to activate the immortal bodies.  Many are dying as we speak.  Some of us...some of us in this chamber will not survive the delay required to engineer a new FLC.
“Do we proceed with the existing FLC, or try again?  Dummont?”
The voice was mechanical, for Dummont had lost the power of speech two hundred years earlier.
“This FLC did well.  For thousands of years, the populace was stable and happy.  Even when we added the asteroid test, the FLC showed great creativity in getting the world past that trial.”
Griditch spoke, “I disagree.  Had we simulated a real asteroid, rather than a sensor ghost, the world would have died.”
“Possibly.  Perhaps if the FLC’s fictional man from the past were faced with the reality of the asteroid, he would have come through with a creative solution to that problem, just as he solved the sensor ghost problem.”
“That still ignores the real problem.  The FLC, in its absolute power, gradually muted everyone’s personality, feeding a false reality to keep the populace in line.  In my case, my ability to sculpt was dimmed to extinction as too disruptive to the populace.
“Do I really want eternal life as an FLC controlled manikin, with my real personality extinguished?”
“But do you want to die tomorrow, either?”
Boden interrupted.  “Elders, we have heard this argument many times before.  Unfortunately, we have a decision to make.”
Dummont was firm.  “We must adopt the immortal bodies now, or we won’t be here to correct the problems.”
Griditch disagreed.  “Once the FLC controls our personalities, we will make no more decisions.”
Boden nodded, “It is a shame that all must change, or none.  Every simulation of a split populace, mortal and immortal, leads quickly to war.  It would be useful to have a guardian over our caretaker, to keep it honest.”
Lady Alanda’s voice was clear in the chamber.
“We could ask Samuel.”
“Samuel?  Can you hear me?”
Sam blinked and struggled to his feet.  Two very old people in mechanical chairs faced him.
“What’s going on here?  Who are you people?”
“I am Griditch.”
“And I...” she coughed raggedly.  “I am Alanda.”
Sam grit his teeth.  “What did Flick do to you?”
“Calm down, Samuel.”  Griditch gestured with his hand.  “Have a seat.  I need to explain some things to you.”
Sam looked at them closely.  Alanda’s pale blue eyes, shiny in a wrinkled, but familiar face, finally convinced him.
He sat.  “Okay, but it had better be good.”
Sam pursed his mouth, as if he had eaten something sour.  “So, I never existed?”
“Correct.  Time travel is impossible.  All that is left from the Twentieth Century are a few classic novels and a couple of history books.  The simulated Flick created a pre-compiled personality based on the character of a detective novel which he installed in a customized artificial body.  That and the content of the history books were all that you needed.”
“But I can remember my friends, my office ... I can remember the case I was on.”
“Not really, they were all phantoms.  When you try to recall anything, the memories are created from history modeling.  I suggest that for now they are just an exercise in futility.  The only thing you really have is your personality.”
Sam looked at Alanda again.  “And the time I spent in the future is false too?”
Griditch nodded.  “A simulation of a time when the FLC has been in control for thousands of years.  The Griditch you spoke with was not me, but a simulation of how I might become.”
Alanda spoke.  “And I’m not your Alanda.  I’m the old hag D’sonna hated so much.”
“And you were just a simulation also.  This body you now wear was created just a few hours ago.  We pulled your pattern from the instant when Flick deactivated you.”
Sam nodded, “When he betrayed me.  I expected that.”
He looked at the two of them.  “I didn’t expect to wake up again like this.  What do you need?  And what are you willing to pay?”
Alanda laughed, although it sounded more like a croak.  “I see what my ... ‘daughter’, liked so much about you.”
Griditch adjusted his chair, raising his torso.  “We do have a problem.”
Sam grilled trout while watching the bright green tower grow slowly out of the mountainside.  Very soon now, with his customized body and brain, he would be the only person who could live outdoors, the only person who didn’t need Flick to live.  He intended to take full advantage of that.
He had reviewed the simulation.  Flick would be a benevolent dictator for thousands of years yet, only becoming deceptive in reaction to a human race that never really learned to behave itself.  There was a lot he had to learn, but he knew what to look for, and when to act.  And when that time came, he had the keys that would control Flick.
“You’ve got your guard dog,” he had told Griditch.  “But there’s no one to watch me.  Are you sure you trust me that far?”
Griditch had frowned, “Not really, but I have no choice.”
Alanda had shushed her fellow Elder. “I trust you, Samuel.  Are you sure you want to vanish so early?”
“It’s best this way.  You fixed it, you say, so Flick’ll never notice I’m different.  But I was raised more cautious than that.  In a billion people, everyone gossips about the Elders—and the people that hang around them.  I need to drop out of sight for a while.”
Sam pulled the trout out of the fire and gingerly pinched off some of the meat.  The splashes of the brook and the trees rustling overhead were his alone.
“And I’ll be watching you too, Angel.  I’ll wait for you, no matter how long it takes.”

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Far Exile - Part 5 of 6

© 2009 by Henry Melton

Sam’s sketch had been crude, once he had mastered the idea of drawing on one Flick’s images, but the finished telescope was a work of art.  Griditch was unable to create anything that wasn’t beautiful.
Sam lifted his fingers from what appeared to be a finely polished brass tube, like a sea captain might have used.  There were no fingerprints.  He rubbed his nose and touched the surface again.  Still no fingerprint.
“This looks like brass, but it’s too light weight, and it stays shiny.”
Alanda nodded absently.  “Griditch wouldn’t use anything that would offend the eye.”
The two of them were waiting for the twilight to fade.
“May I take a look through the telescope?” she asked.
Sam handed it over.  She held it clumsily, trying to focus on the nearest tower.  “It is hard to see.  Everything moves.”
“Yeah.  We’ll need a tripod—something to support the weight of the scope.”
“Oh.”  She nodded.  She stepped back and one of the cushioned chairs rose up from the floor before her.  She rested the tube on the backrest.  “That’s much better.”
Sam watched, bemused, as she reported, “I can even see the people over there!”  She moved the scope back and forth, but always aimed at the nearest tower.
Her face flushed, she timidly handed it back to him.  “Sorry.  I wanted to go visit there for years.  I never got around to it.”  Her lips compressed.  “I thought I had all the time in the world.”
A couple of other people had stopped nearby to watch them.  Sam looked their way, and they hurried off.
“What’s special about the silver tower?”
“The Eighth City?  Nothing in particular.”  She eyes drifted away for a second.  “The population is nearly the same.  They have a higher percentage of oriental genotypes.  They have over twenty Buddhist temples, whereas there is only one here in the Ninth City.”  She shrugged.  “Each city is a little different.  I had thought to take the Grand Tour someday—visit each of the Hundred Cities.  Spend a year or so at each of them.  An Elder should really have that kind of experience, don’t you think?”
Sam looked at her clear, unlined face, her simple smile.  Her honest pale blue eyes were watching him.
“Angel, how old are you?”
She flushed.  “Samuel, I don’t really know.  Not in years of life.  Some things are off limits even to me.  It has been thirty years since my regression.  Those are all the memories I have.”
Flick appeared beside them.  “Samuel.  Twilight should be over in another minute.  You should be able to see the asteroid with your telescope now.”
Sam snarled, “Go away.”  Flick disappeared.
He took Alanda’s hand.  “Angel, what is regression?”
Another voice answered.  D’sonna walked up to them.
“Regression is when a person decides to die, but is too timid to go through with it.”
Alanda’s face went pale.  The older woman’s face was stern.
“Alanda, the real Alanda, was ancient beyond knowing.  She had been everywhere, seen everything, and was tired of life.  I was to have been her replacement among the Elders.
“Instead, she opted for regression.  Flick erased all her memories and most of her personality.  She was little more than an infant in that old hag’s body.  Griditch took care of her, but she’s still no more than a child.
“She’s the biggest joke of the Ninth City.  She’s the youngest of us all, and our esteemed Elder.”
Alanda’s eyes were wet.  She hung her head and turned to go.  Sam grabbed her arm.  “Stay put, Angel.”
D’sonna stood tall, her nostrils wide, her eyes full of hatred.
Sam laughed.  It shook her.
“D’sonna, in a whole world of sheep, you’re the only one acting like a wolf.  No one I’ve seen has been rude.  Not until today.
“Nothing you say shocks me, of course.  I’ve seen worse every day of my life.  But you’re one of these people.”
He nodded toward Alanda, still captive in his grip.  “See this little one.  It even hurts her, when I’m talking straight to you.  And according to you, she’s an innocent in your battle with Flick.
“Why’d you turn into a bitch and go for her throat?”
D’sonna’s chin quivered a little.  Sam could see she wasn’t any more immune to harsh words than any of them.
Her voice wasn’t as steady either.  “We’re all going to die, aren’t we?  When you’re as old as I am, you learn to be polite, because everything you say will come back to haunt you.  But that’s all past now, isn’t it?  You said there was nothing you could do to make a difference.”
Sam smiled like a wolf.  “That’s what I said then.  Perhaps things have changed.  Of course, if you’d rather spend your last days making your enemies suffer.  She’s right here.  Do your worst.”
He pushed Alanda forward to face D’sonna.  Genuine fright filled the girl’s eyes.  Her persecutor looked from her to Sam’s grin, and then her bluster faded.  She turned sharply away and stalked off.
Sam watched her go.
“Samuel?  My arm.”
He released his grip.  He took her chin in one hand and wiped away her tears with one of her sleeve scarves.  “Now there, Angel.  It’s better to face your enemies than run away.  She’s done her worst now.”
Alanda rubbed her arm.  “I don’t know who was worse, her or you.”
He nodded.  “That’s the spirit.  Tell me off.  Tell her off if she comes back.”  He looked thoughtful.  “Alanda, ask Flick.  How long ago was the last murder committed?”
Flick appeared in person.  “That’s not necessary.  You are right, Samuel.  People don’t murder each other.  Not anymore.  Not for many thousands of years.”
“But the spirit is there,” Sam said.  “I could see it in her eyes.  How many people choose to die or ‘regress’ after being badgered into it by their enemies?”
Flick hesitated.  “I cannot make a reasonable assessment.”
Sam waved him off.  “It doesn’t matter.
“But now that you’re here.  Give me a display of that star field.  And darken this hallway.  I want to see if I can find that asteroid myself.”
The long hallway went dark.  Alanda took his arm in her hand.  “It’s okay, Angel.  There’s no need to be afraid of the dark.”
He propped the telescope on the chair back, and with coaching by the glowing image of Flick, he located the bright pattern of stars that surrounded the asteroid’s position.
Sam stared intently into the eyepiece, and then checked his position against the projected star field again.
Alanda whispered.  “Can you find it, Samuel?”
“Hmm.”  He looked up from the telescope, frowning.
“Flick.  Looking through this glass is still too limiting.  I need to go outside.”
The image looked offended.  “Nonsense, Samuel.  There should be no appreciable front surface reflection, and the glass is perfectly transparent.”
Sam picked up the scope and slapped the chair.  After a second.  It started to retract into the floor.
“You picked me because you couldn’t predict what a Twentieth Century man might want to do.  Well, this is it.  I need to take this telescope outside under the stars and look for myself.  If you can’t help me do one simple thing, then I have to ask, what’re you hiding?”
Alanda tugged at his sleeve.  “Samuel.  You can’t go outside!  It would hurt the plants.”
He shook her free.  “Be sensible!  How many plants will die if that asteroid hits?  If I can stop it by going outside, isn’t it worth that risk?”
The girl was clearly not listening.  Sam turned to Flick.  “Well, are you going to show me the door to the outside, or aren’t you?”
“It is a useless exercise.”
Sam just faced him, his fingers tapping on the shiny tube.  A grin was slowly edging up at the corners of his mouth.
Flick shook his head.  “Okay.  I’ll do it.  But there’s no sense in your actions.”
Across the way, a transport door opened up.  Sam grabbed Alanda’s arm and headed for the opening.
“Samuel?  I can’t go outside.”
“That’s okay, Precious.  Just stay with me for as long as you can.  That’s all I ask.”
Hesitantly, she agreed.
The transport dropped away, and Sam could feel her shivering next to him as they traveled on and on.
Finally, he felt the chamber come to a stop.
Flick appeared.  “Go through the narrow hallway and stop at the end.”
Alanda had to be urged to take the first step.  They walked together until the hallway ended at a closed double-door.
Suddenly another doorway closed behind them.
“Hey!” protested, Sam.
Flick’s voice came from somewhere above them.  “Don’t be alarmed.  This is just an airlock to keep the outside air from mixing with the inside air.”
The double-door parted, and Alanda shrank back as far away as she could.
Sam whispered, “It’s okay, Angel.”  He stepped outside.
Trees had grown up next to the wall of the city tower.  Familiar scents, pine and sweetgum, filled the air.  Even in the dark, Sam could see their branches overhead and see the massive trunks.  The ground was mossy and spongy, as if no step had trod this way since the dawn of time.
Half the sky was blocked by the tower.  Sam looked up and shook his head.  “The Empire State Building ain’t the champion anymore.”
Alanda’s face, lit by the interior lights was staring out into the darkness.  “Samuel?”
“It’s fine, Angel.  I’ve got to move a little farther to find an open place to see the stars.  You just stay put.”
He found the Big Dipper and headed roughly north for a few hundred paces.  A deer trail made the going easier.
“Flick?  Can you hear me?”
There was no answer.  Sam smiled.
He found the pattern of stars.  Perhaps it was a constellation he had seen back in his own time, but he had never memorized them.  A large rock gave him a place to steady the scope.  He looked, and then checked his position in the sky to look again.  He nodded to himself and pulled out a cigarette.  He barely coughed before turning back along the trail.
“Samuel!”  Halfway back, it was Alanda’s voice.  He hurried.
In the darkness, he stumbled over her body.  She was sprawled across the roots of a tree still in sight of the door.
“Angel?”  She was warm, but totally limp.  He felt for a pulse, but gave it no more time when he couldn’t feel it.
“Flick!  Something’s wrong with Alanda.”  He carried her the few feet into the hallway.  The lights showed her eyes wide open, but unfocussed.
The machine’s voice came from the ceiling.  “Did she go outside?”
“Yes!  Do something.  Get a doctor here.”
“It is okay Samuel.  She will recover as soon as I send her an awake signal.”
“She isn’t breathing, and I can’t find her pulse.”
“That is normal.”
Sam got to his feet and faced the voice.  “What are you talking about?  What did you do to her?”
“I did nothing.  I keep her alive.  It is you who enticed her outside where she can’t live.”
“Explain yourself.  But if you can help her.  Do it!”
“It will take about five minutes for her to wake back up.  She will be confused.
“Samuel.  My people are not like you.  In the past, they gave up their natural bodies for ones that could last.  This is not something I did to them.  It was their choice.  I was created as a caretaker for them.  The Hundred Cities are their world, and they cannot exist outside.  The memories of thousands of years cannot be contained in a natural brain.
“When Alanda walked outside the skin of the tower, her mind quickly lost its regulation and her body collapsed.  If she hadn’t been returned inside, I would have been unable to revive her.”
Sam checked her again.  She was breathing softly.  He felt for a pulse and was rewarded with a beat.
“Samuel,” asked Flick.  “Are you done with your outside experiment, now?  Can we get back to the real problem?  Do you have any idea of how to avert the asteroid?”
Sam sneered.  “Of course!  There never was any asteroid, and you know it.  This is just some kind of sick game of yours.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I looked up at the stars with my own eyes, and it wasn’t there.  Oh, it’s there in all your maps and images, but it isn’t there in reality.  You put it there.
“You are mistaken.  My images are a synthesis of many instruments much more powerful than your telescope.  They all report the asteroid.”
Sam taunted, “Yes, but I have my two eyes.  You can’t fool me.  There is no asteroid.”
Alanda stirred.  He put his hand under her head.  “Are you okay, Precious?”
“Samuel?  What’s happening?”
The outer door slammed shut.  Sam grimaced, but concentrated on getting Alanda to her feet.
“Nothing.  It’s all right.  Let’s get you back home.”