Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 9 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

Software Exploration
James was bored stiff, waiting for Coach Echart to return to his office.  He could’ve gone over to the gym and watched the basketball practice, but watching the others play without him was uncomfortable. 
Not that Coach’s guest chair has ever heard of ergonomics.  He stretched his back to get the kinks out.
The stack of schoolwork in his backpack was getting lighter.  He flipped through the folders again.  Everything was caught up with decent grades, other than French, and that was ... well, like a foreign language to him.
The teachers had been very helpful while he was in the hospital.
But Barlow probably did me no great favor by letting me take a ‘C’ in French without taking her final.  I’m so far behind now it’s pathetic.
And now, Coach Barlow was spending more time with her girls’ volleyball team than her French class and it looked like his special catch-up sessions were over with.
Well, at least I can see now.
If the doctors would just let it go.  I hate that eye pressure machine.  Somehow, he’d lost fluid from inside his eyes.  After the accident, everything was out of focus.
The door opened.
“Hello, James.”
“Hi, Coach.  Any news?”
He shook his head, “No.  I asked, but until your doctors sign off on it, I can’t let you on the team.”
Hope that had been building over the past few days crashed back to the bottom.
“I feel fine.  I really do.  My eyesight is perfect.  I’ve been shooting goals in my driveway and I’m good at it.”
“I know, James.  You were good last year.  But if I let you out there on the boards, and anything happened, it would be my job.”
“It’s just not fair.  First football, and now this.”
“It’s insurance, James.  This is a poor school district.  We can’t afford a lawsuit, and no matter what you promise, we just can’t risk it.
“I understand how you feel.  But next year will be better.”
James nodded and left.
One little accident and his whole high school career was shot.
He went to the pay phone and called home.  No answer.
His pickup was rusting in the creek bed and his driver’s license was parentally suspended—they didn’t trust his health either.
One little dizzy spell, and that was last week.  I’m fine now.
When he first came back from the hospital, people were anxious to be there for him.  Suzie, and the other cheerleaders too, were happy to care for the injured and to hear his tale.  Not that he remembered any of it.
That lasted about a week.  Slick, Drake and Larry were still checking on him, but they had practice to take care of.  He was just an ex-jock.
“No.  We can’t get you a new car.”  Diana Hill shook her head.  
“The medical bills.”  She sighed.  “The only insurance we had was from work, and I hadn’t been there long enough for it to cover most of the hospitalization.  We talked about selling the house.”
James said, “No.”  This was the only house he knew.
She smiled, “It’s okay.  Luckily your father got a better paying consulting job and money is coming in, but at this rate it will still be a long time before we pay it all off.
“And the pickup—all we had was liability coverage.  We won’t see a penny on that.”
James said, “I’m sorry.”
She patted his hand.  “I’m just glad you came through it in one piece.
“It’s tough now.  Your father is working seven days a week.  Even when I come in from the late shift, he’s always working, out in the shed on his computers.  He’s even talking about more travel.  It’s wearing him down.”
James realized the car was a lost cause.  If I hadn’t been so stupid as to get jealous over Suzie, none of this would have happened.
He offered, “I could get a job.  Coach told me basketball was out for now.  I’ve got better grades than ever now, and I’ve still got free time on my schedule.”
“But are you healthy?  The doctors said you had lost a lot of blood, and they were worried about your eyes, and your dizzy spells.  You shouldn’t rush your recovery.”
“I am doing fine, now.  Not a single symptom for a week.”
Just then the back door opened and Bob walked in.  Diana was puzzled.  He had a strange gleam in his eye and he was carrying something.  
He walked up to them, set the bowl down on the table, and declared.  “Water balloon fight!”
He grabbed one of the brightly colored balloons from the bowl and tossed it at James.  It caught him full on, and the residuals splashed his mother.
James gasped and grabbed a couple of balloons and got off one at each parent.
Diana screamed, “Out!  Get these things out of my kitchen!”
James and his father divided up the remainder of the balloons and dashed out onto the back lawn, pelting each other with the balloons.
Diana grabbed up her mop, and started cleaning.  What has gotten into Bob?  She saw James race past the window, glee on his face.
But it was good to see them having fun together.
James waved goodbye to Larry and the guys.  He’d taken the precaution of asking Larry for a ride home from school early.  Without his pickup to help take up the slack, Larry’s car was as crowded as it’d been before.
No one was home.
Larry had been raving about his new video game console.
James had bragged on the benefits of PC based games.  Nothing like Larry’s box is on my budget any time soon. 
He suspected that Larry had the better argument.
But, with games on his mind, he wandered over to the work shed.
There was no lock on the door, just a hasp for a padlock they never used.  He looked inside.
Techno-clutter.  As usual, there was his father’s workbench with its strange gear, a desk, and computers against the wall.
He frowned.  Where is Sleepy?
Three identical computers sat against the far wall in a rat’s maze of wiring.  Only the hand-lettered name stickers proclaimed which was which.  There had been five—Grumpy, Doc, Bashful, Sleepy and Sneezy.  His computer in his bedroom was named Dopey, even though it wasn’t on the same network as his dad’s work computers.
There were five, now there are only three.  
Shortly after Dad started consulting, and began buying more computers, James smuggled his game software out here when Dad was out of town.  These were so much more powerful machines than Dopey.  The games screamed.
But it took time to re-install the games, and his father had made it clear that games on work-related machines would be deleted without warning.  He didn’t even have an Internet connection on any of them but Grumpy, which he switched out of the local area network when he needed to use the web.
“I have no time for games, or viruses,” Dad had said.
So James had created a game disk image, a huge file that pretended to be a hard disk.  To make sure his father didn’t stumble over it, he renamed it and hid it off in one of the system directories.  His father’s machines had so much disk space that he’d never notice.
He had hidden it on Sleepy.
Where did it go? 
Dad could be back any minute.  But he quickly scooted the chair over to Doc’s keyboard and logged in.  He had his father’s login memorized and feared the day when he decided to change his password.
He clicked over to the network list.  He would check each of the machines.  They could have been renamed, and the disk image might still be here.
Over two hundred computers appeared in the list.
Strange!  Has Dad changed his Internet rules?
Most of them had obscure names, like hp150-4, but there in the list was Sleepy, and even a Happy.
With flying fingers, he burrowed down into Sleepy’s file system, and there it was, the game disk image.
He listened.  No sound of any car.  
Copying the image over from Sleepy to Doc’s hard disk was started, and over, in just under a minute.
That was fast!  He double-checked it.  Yes, the whole image had indeed been copied.
That’s not right.  File copies over the Internet, even over cable-modem systems, were not that fast.  Maybe Grumpy to Doc, right next to each other, with gigabit ethernet might be that fast, but not over a long distance network.
There were disk access lights on each of the three computers.  He listed files from Grumpy, Doc and Bashful.  The right lights blinked.  Yes, indeed, the computers had not been renamed.  He listed a file from Sleepy.  It zipped across the screen just as fast, but none of the local computers blinked.
How did Dad get on a fast network? 
Up out of the chair, he walked outside, peering carefully for wires.  There was the power cable that connected the work shed to the house.  And there was the telephone line, but that was all.  He looked under the shed, in the crawlspace, but there was nothing.  Nor was there a satellite dish.  Are there hundreds of invisible computers here in this little shed?
Wireless?  That was how his father connected to the Internet, using the house’s base station.  But wireless isn’t fast enough either.
There was a rumble in the distance.  On their property, you could hear cars from a mile away.
He raced back inside and logged off.
By the time his father’s car appeared in the driveway, he was standing out on the porch.  
Strange how his dad’s hair had started to look gray.  When did that happen?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 8 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

Practice was over.  James was ready to go home.
I’m sure I saw the cheerleaders rehearsing in the gym.
There’d been a few snide comments from some of the younger football players.  The cheerleaders had to practice indoors.  “So sweet they’d melt in the rain.”
The seniors on the team made it clear that real football players never gripe about the weather, nor about practice on Thanksgiving week.   With the standings so tight among the teams in their district, every first down counted towards the Regionals, if it came down to a tie.
He didn’t know where Suzie was, and he didn’t care.  Extra hours in the weight room helped keep his mind off of her, too.  Suzie was avoiding him, but just being in the same class with her notched up his tension level.  Taking out his frustration on the weight bench seemed to help.
He spun his wheels a little on the way out of the parking lot.
Sam sure seemed cheerful today.  He frowned.  She was just using me to get him jealous, I’d bet.  She went with him, and his fancy red car.
Probably under the bridge with him right now.
He approached the spot.  In spite of the rain, it looked like tire prints headed down the side track.  He felt a flush of anger.
Not thinking, he turned off the asphalt, and bounced around the bend.
Suddenly, there was a huge splash, and he slammed forward hitting his head on the steering wheel.  The shadows had hidden the floodwaters, well over the roadway, just a trap for the unwary.
Water began spilling into the cab.  The currents tugged at the vehicle.  James didn’t move.
Bob watched the tracer dot approach the map image of the bridge and then slow. 
Oh no.  He is going to do it again.
This time, he did nothing.  He couldn’t do anything.  He had told the boy everything he wanted to tell him.  If he’s going to get in trouble with that girl, he’ll do so, no matter what I try.
Being a parent was the hardest thing in the world.  Especially at those times when you had to step back, close your eyes, and pray that your kid did the right thing.
He looked at the dot again, and frowned.  The pickup was moving again, but it wasn’t on the road, it was following the river.
The sound of the storm raging around him, and the furious downpour broke into his awareness.
He snapped into action.  Like before, he moved the sphere.  But this time, the lightning flash illuminated James alone in the cab, his eyes closed and water rising all around.  The pickup was in the river.  It was floating, cab end up.  James was unconscious.
Willis whimpered, as blood splattered on the wooden floor.
No choice!
He opened the sphere wide, and as water poured in, he reached into the sphere, grabbed James by the arm, and yanked him through.
Fast.  Don’t give him time to bleed to death.
He pulled hard, and the boy slumped lifeless to the floor.   There was a huge spark as the water splashed all over the floor and shorted out the electricity.  Everything went dark.
Bob kept the phone to the 911 operator open, giving her updates on his boy, and his progress on the road.
James looked very pale. But he was still breathing.
He was several miles towards the hospital when he saw the blinking lights ahead of him in the rain, he pounded the horn and flashed his lights.  The ambulance turned around and followed him off onto the shoulder.
EMS technicians elbowed him aside, as they climbed in to work on James.
Bob fed the details, keeping out of their way.  He didn’t think James had inhaled any water, he had been knocked unconscious, but the cab had still been floating when he had hauled his boy out.
No, he didn’t know how he had lost so much blood.  Perhaps the scalp wound? 
He hated to lie, especially now.  Soon they were racing towards the hospital emergency room.
Bob could do nothing but pray.  He prayed hard.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 7 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

Saturday morning, James called Suzie the first thing, but she didn’t answer the phone.
She was steamed.  She hadn’t argued, much, when he had gone back into town and gotten the milk like he’d been asked.  She just sat there, arms folded, not even looking at him, until he’d dropped her off at her house.
He was mad at her too, and his father for interrupting.
It had taken him a long time to settle down and go to sleep.
His dreams, what he could remember of them, had been dark and lush.  Like a shock, the feel of her skin came to him.
There was a knock on his bedroom door.
It was Dad.
“Hi, James.  I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk after you got home last night.  How was the game?”
James shrugged.  “Wet.  Half the crowd was gone before they even called it.”
“You did well, I’ll bet.”
He nodded.
His father, closed the door behind him, and pulled up a chair.  He gave a big sigh.  “Prepare yourself son.  This is the ‘birds-and-the-bees’ talk.”
James felt a flicker of panic.
“Now, before I start, am I correct that you don’t have a girlfriend?”
James nodded.  Probably not.
“Good!  I can’t imagine how much more embarrassing this would be if you already had a girl.
“I assume school has already filled you in on the mechanics of it all.”
James felt himself flush, but at least his dad wasn’t staring him in the eyes.  During the first part, where his dad talked about condoms and the differences between real world sex and movie sex, he tensed up.  He couldn’t help it.  It was like watching the needle go in while getting a shot.
Only when Dad started talking theory did it get interesting.
“There’s instinct and there’s training.  Sexual attraction and the basic moves are certainly instinct.
“But people act with much more complex motivations than that.  If you do something good, you get a good feeling.  You eat and your stomach is satisfied.  You move away from fire and your skin stops hurting.”
“You exercise and you get endorphins,” James added.
“Right!  It’s a complex system where actions are rewarded or punished and those responses get trained into the brain.
“I think, and this is just my opinion, but I think that sexual orgasm may be the strongest training system in the human mind.  It is intense.  It’s a reward to the brain.
“So, it certainly looks like a training signal.  But what is being learned?”
“To have more sex?”  James started to relax, just a little.
“Maybe.  But think about it—that’s already an instinct.  It doesn’t need to be trained into the brain.”
James thought about it a bit.  In spite of the topic, learning and thinking things through with his dad was one of the things he liked to do best.  Since he learned to talk, it seemed, his father would announce ‘Pop quiz!’ and ask about something off the wall that was interesting or practical.
“Maybe ... maybe sexual technique, or something about the girl?”  He thought of Suzie, angry at him with her arms folded tight.
“Possibly.  But that’s a big load of pleasure for something external.
“My thought is that when the orgasm hits, a person’s self image is burned into his brain.  Just think about it.  If a guy is being a sneak in order to get sex, success will burn that self-concept into him.  ‘Being a sneak gets me sex.’
“Or if a guy has overwhelmed the girl with his macho bluster, then that’ll be his key to more sex.  Or the same with the guy who has to pay for sex.  Or the guy who has lied to the girl.  Or whatever.
“It makes sense to me that biology would tune the human brain for more sex.  Environments change.  Cultures change, and much faster than instincts can cope with.”
James nodded, but he shied away from thinking about what he might have learned last night.  Letting the girl call all the shots. 
“You might learn a lot of bad stuff that way.”
His father smiled.  “A lot of people do.  Biology doesn’t care about what harm you do to the people around you, or what harm you do to yourself mentally.  All that’s important to biology is more sex, which means, statistically, more babies with your genes in them.
“I hope and pray that when your time comes, your self image will be of an honorable man who cares deeply about all the people in his life.”
Once Dad left the room, James looked over at the phone.  He sighed and shook his head.  Maybe it was a mistake to think about sex too much.  He felt his mouth twist into a grin that was more grimace than smile.
Maybe that’s why some Dads give their sons the talk.
The map overlay was working perfectly.  Bob flew the remote sphere up US Highway 89, to the junction with Highway 64 and turned west.  He glanced at the readout on the screen.  The scale had long since shifted from feet/meters to miles/kilometers.  884 miles.
Someday, I’m going to just input the destination and blip!—it’ll be there.  But he was too nervous to do that yet.  He wanted to watch every step, just in case he’d forgotten something.
He could see the Grand Canyon.  The sphere was small, and there was a whistle of air coming through it.  In or out, he didn’t know and he was not going to put his hand anywhere near it to find out!
There!  The main viewpoint.  He remembered it clearly from their vacation a couple of years ago.
Carefully staying out of sight of the spectators, he moved the sphere below the railing where decades of tourists had tossed coins into ravines impossible to reach.  He edged the sphere up next to the cliff and engulfed a coin.
The first penny fell through the opening in space and struck the floor hard, bouncing high enough in the work shed to hit the metal ceiling hard.
Bob jerked away, as if he had been shot at.
Potential energy.  He paused.  The canyon walls were at about 7000 feet altitude, and he was at 600 feet.  Falling that distance, the penny must have picked up a load of energy.  It would be like catching bullets.
It’d been a bad idea.  But this was useful information.  He looked over the scene.  Mostly pennies.  I could work all day and not make much.  I’ll need to hock something else.
He had to have money to show for the job that he was supposedly doing.  Raiding the coins had seemed like a good idea, but it was a bust.
A tap of the keyboard brought the remote sphere back home.
The clock on the computer screen ticked away the minutes.  James will be out of football practice soon.
Bob hated to do it, but he put the remote sphere back into the pickup’s clock, and brought the tracking map up on the screen.  He still didn’t know who the girl was, and when James had denied having a girl friend, he had a bad feeling about her.  It was horrible having to spy on your son.
When he gets home, we’ll do something together.  James is growing up fast.  Soon enough he won’t have time for me.
Until then, he had some math to go over.  Every experiment, the sphere gave him something new to puzzle over.
I’m a physicist, not a mathematician.  Bellerman space equations seemed simple at first, and then doubled in complexity every time he tried to nail them down.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 6 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

Another late fall thunderstorm turned football night into a madhouse.  The game was called at halftime because of lightning strikes near the stadium.  James was confused over the standings.  They’d been ahead at halftime, but would the game count?  It just might make a difference in whether the team went to Regionals or not.
Suzie was ready to go when he got out of the showers.
“I am soaked.  Can you turn the heater up?”  She was shivering.
He dialed it up, revving the engine to try to get it warmed up.  She scooted close beside him, and he put his arm around her.
“I hate the rain,” she said.  James was quiet.  He didn’t mind, usually.  It made the ground slippery, and it was harder to hear the calls, but under the pads and helmet, the rain itself wasn’t that bad.
They pulled out of the school parking lot and headed in the direction of her house.  
She felt good, next to him.
“Do you want to stop by Wag-A-Bag for a coke?”
“No,” she said.  And then, she looped her arms around his neck and kissed him.
I wasn’t ready for that.  He forced himself to focus on the road.  The streets were wet and the rain was still coming down in intermittent waves.
On the road out of town, she pointed to the bridge over Brushy creek.  Eyes bright, with a mischievous grin, she said, “My folks won’t expect me for another couple of hours.  Pull over here, why don’t you.”  
She pointed to a nearly hidden dirt track.  It wound down the grade until it stopped under the bridge.
James put the pickup in park and killed the headlights.  “It’s getting warm.”
“Yeah,” she said, and unbuckled her seat belt.  “Take off your coat.”  She tugged off her sweater.
She is soaked.  Her blouse clung to her skin and he could see everything by the dim lights of the instrument panel.  She smiled at him, waiting as he pulled his coat off.
She didn’t have to wait long.
Bob monitored the computer screen, watching the indicator dot blinking its three dimensional path.  This was the farthest he’d ever sent one of the spheres.
If this works, I might just have a commercial winner here.
Now that he had converted the system to complete computer control, there were a lot of experiments he could try.
The closest sphere, pebble-sized, was on his desktop inside a contraption slightly smaller than a gallon milk jug.  Centered inside a quadrahedron, a pyramid with four sides, radio sensor loops listened for a signal coming from the sphere.
Bob had manually steered the other sphere out into the pickup’s car radio hours ago.  The digital clock ran all the time, and made just a little bit of radio whine.  It wasn’t much, but tunneling through the sphere, the sensor antenna loops were just an inch away.  It was close enough to pick up that faint signal.
When James drove the pickup off to school, the radio moved, bringing it closer to one of the sensors.  At computer speeds, the software moved the remote sphere so that it stayed centered.  The sphere stayed locked in position, inside the car radio, no matter where it went.
Bob’s software kept track of each twist and turn.  On the computer screen, a moving dot gave him a detailed track of where the pickup was going.
This is great.  The sphere is tiny and enclosed in a box for safety, and yet I can track anything, anywhere, with no GPS satellites or bulky uplink dishes.  It will work regardless of cloud cover or tunnels.  And it is cheap.
It was still too dangerous if anyone had a clue how it actually worked.  He’d have to find a way to sell the service, and not let the technology get free.
All the real equipment was still there on his desk.  Could that work?  Sell the service, but never tell how it’s done?  
There were refinements needed, of course.  For one thing, he needed to overlay a road map over the tracing dot, but that was just software.
It seems to have stopped.  The track that had been building all day showed him clearly where the roads were.  James had gone to town, stopped at the convenience store, then off to the school, where the pickup had stayed for hours.
When it had started again, Bob realized with a sinking feeling that he’d missed another of his son’s football games.  This discovery was murder on his family life.
And the game must’ve been called early.  Thunder was still rumbling outside.  It was the rainy season.  He hadn’t even noticed until now.
Expectantly, he watched the screen.  Why did he stop there?  He used the mouse to twist the image on the screen.  There was a dip in elevation.  The bridge?  Or has the system glitched?
He checked the sensors.  No, all were picking up the buzz of the clock.  The pickup had to be stopped.
I hope he doesn’t have car trouble.  The pickup was getting old.  Water could have drowned out the ignition?
He might need to go rescue the boy.
But there is a way I can check.
He snapped the lights off in the work shed and dimmed the computer monitor.  He went to the software and deactivated the tracking loop.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He edged the tiny remote sphere up a few inches.  That should clear the dash.
Then he raised the local sphere.  It drifted out of its enclosing pyramid and hovered above the sensor loops where he could see it.
In the dark, he peered through the tiny hole in space, trying to see if his son was having trouble with the car.
Even before he could see anything, the sounds of heavy breathing leaked through.
A girl’s bare back was all he could see, and hands—his boy’s hands—were fumbling with the straps of her bra.
Bob snapped the sphere down in size until neither sight nor sound was coming through.
What can I do?  James is only seventeen.  Who’s this girl?
He picked up his cell phone and dialed his son.  We bought him a phone for emergencies.  This qualifies! 
After four long rings, James answered.
“Yes?”  He was breathing hard.
Bob forced himself to sound calm and relaxed.  It was hard.
“James.  Game called early?”
“Uh, yes.  The officials didn’t like the lightning.”
He could hear a muffled sound in the background.  Probably the girl.  He tried to ignore it.
“Well, how did the game go?”
“14 to 6.  We were ahead.  I don’t know how they will count the game.”
“We can just hope for the best, then.  Son, could you do me a favor?”
“What’s that?”  His voice was rushed, nervous.
“I think we’re out of milk.  Could you stop by the store on the way home and pick up a gallon?  Put it on the gas card.”
“Uh, okay.”
“Bye now.”
Bob reactivated the trace and watched the screen.  Every second was torment until the tracer dot started backing up along the track only a minute later.  
“That’s a horrible trick to play on you boy.”
He dashed back into the house to empty out the milk left in the refrigerator.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Emperor Dad - Extra - Jakes Hill Bridge on Brushy Creek

Illustration for tomorrow's segment.  Jakes Hill Bridge, over Brushy Creek, which has a history that never made it into the novel.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 5 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

The tires on the gravel outside caught Bob’s attention.
The game.  I missed his game.
He flipped a switch, and then headed into the house.
James was at the refrigerator.
“Hi.  How did the game go?”
His son came up with an apple, and bit into it with a crunch.  “Pretty good.”  He chewed.
“Sorry I missed it.  Work stuff got to me and I missed the time.”
“’Sokay.  Coach told me my goal-line stand saved the game.  I believe him.  21-20.”
“Oh, you’re just trying to make me feel bad.”
James grinned at him.  “No, really, Dad.  It’s okay.”
But he then proceeded to tell him the whole game, play by play.  Bob listened.  He missed the games.  When he wasn’t out of town, he was deeply caught up with his new project.
A little later, Diana arrived.  “How did your game go?”  she asked.
“Pretty good.”  And James was off, re-telling the game from the beginning.
Bob got a coke and slipped back out to his workshop.
He paused at the door, his hand on the light switch.
I can still see it.  The glow of the trapped ball lightning was fading, but the size hadn’t varied.  It really was Bellerman space, otherwise his stabilizer would never have worked.
He flipped on the light switch, and the faint glow was lost in the glare of the fluorescent tubes hung by hooks and chains to the wooden rafters of the work shed.
Before James had arrived, he had been tracing the power supply circuitry node by node with his multimeter.  The ball wasn’t exactly stable.  There was a flutter in the boundary of the sphere.
It was three AM when he solved it.  Replacing a weak capacitor in the circuit, while it was still running, was exacting work.  One glitch and the sphere would be gone, until the next thunderstorm rumbled through.
Resting against the wall was the melted and charred framework of copper that had channeled the power of the lightning strike.  He winced at the sight.  I don’t want to have to build another one.
How lucky had he been to create a Bellerman sphere on the first try?  He looked back at the table.
Voltage fluctuation had originally caused a disturbance on the surface, like a heat haze that refracted the light just a bit.  With his custom-made, battery backed up power supply now rock stable, the ball of folded space was no longer visible. 
Now what can I do with it?
Dawn came, and the caffeine began to wear off.  He tapped the keys on his computer, listing a summary of the results.  The details remained in his notebook.  He was too tired to list them all.
“Item 15: I can control the size and amazingly the location of the sphere.  I don’t understand it.  Not at all.  When I wake up, I’m going back over the math.  How can I have a gadget that controls the actions of a sphere two meters away?”
He shook his head, dialed the sphere down to marble size and went to bed.
“Mom?  Do you have an employee discount at your store?”
She looked up from her breakfast cereal.  “A little one, why?”
James shrugged.  “Oh, I was just thinking about getting some new clothes.”
Her eyebrows lifted, “Got a girlfriend?”
“No.”  He frowned.  “It’s just that all my clothes are old and grubby.”
She thought a minute.  “Well, Christmas is six weeks away.  Wait until then.”
“Maybe I can get a job?”
“I’ve got a job for you.  We need to cut out all the wild grapevines growing in the trees near the pond.”
“Do I get money for this?”
Diana shook her head.  “We don’t have any.  Times are tight since your father lost his job.  The consulting pays erratically, and not very much.
“How are your grades coming?”
James shifted in his chair.  “Uh.  So-so.  Why?”
“Coach Echart mentioned something.  He’s worried you might lose your eligibility.  Adding a job to your schedule might mean that you have to give up football.”
“I can’t give up football!”  He knew his grades were getting bad.  The other classes were so boring.
“Then concentrate on your homework.  I know you’re smart enough.  You just need to take the time to study.
“Your father is working very hard lately, and we’ll make it past this, but we all have to be patient and watch what we spend.”
1:47 AM—Bob sighed.  My sleep schedule is wrecked.  How many days have I been at this?  
He moved the mouse and clicked open the log and began typing.
“Major breakthrough.  Following the math has paid off.”
So many of the elements of the equations were paired, with a right-hand and left-hand symmetry.  It’d been a basic element of the original paper.
“Today, I managed to shift the sphere to dual control elements.  Tolerances were very tight and I think that without computer control of the circuitry, any further refinement will be impossible to control.”
His mind drifted off into the design of the computer system he would need.
The work shed could get crowded.
It’s already crowded.
The shed had been designed as a portable storage building, not a place to live and work.  Its wiring was extension cords.  Its walls and ceiling were un-insulated sheet metal and wooden framing.  Luckily, Central Texas was not very cold, or the little space heater he’d added to the mix wouldn’t be enough.
Me, the desk, the heater, the computers, and now this.
The one-foot diameter sphere was visible now, because it was in two places at once.
Forcing the symmetrical elements of the Bellerman space into two different locations did just that.  It had twinned right before his eyes.
It is really just one sphere.  There is only one inside.  It’s just that it has two outsides.
Light entering one of them came out both.  Looking through them gave a double-image.
He took a pencil from his pocket and tossed it through the left sphere.  It exited out of the right one.
He dropped a quarter through it, and it came out the same side.  A penny did the same, but a second penny teleported.
It’s random.
The door opened with a creak.  A dingy white fur ball of a dog stuck his nose in, sampling the warm air.
“Come on in, Willis.  Want to make some history?”
Carefully, Bob dialed up the size of the spheres.  Size is an attribute of the Bellerman space.  They will always match.  He shook his head.  Don’t think that way.  It’s just one sphere.  One sphere.  Remember that.
He adjusted the positions of the spheres one at a time, lowering them to almost ground level.  
“Here boy.”  Willis suffered being picked up and when he dropped him into the nearest sphere, he sniffed tolerantly at his owner’s antics.
Bob looked at the two dogs, calmly waiting for whatever came next, and apparently not too disturbed to see two humans waving at him.
“Come on Willis, come to me.”  The dog stepped forward and put his nose and head through the sphere, and then his eyes glazed, and he whimpered.  From the other sphere there was a splatter and bright red blood spurted across the floor.
Panicked, Bob grabbed at the dog’s head and pulled him out.  Willis collapsed on the floor.  His chest heaved for a couple of times before it stopped.
He’s dead.
Blood was still pooling on the floor.  He could smell it.
Bob picked up the warm, limp dog, aching to think of anything that he could do.  There was nothing.
Teleportation worked, but it was random all the way down to the molecular level.  Skin, muscle and bone were all connected.  Once Willis poked the tip of his nose out one sphere, the chemical bonds of his body kept all of his body connected.  But blood found an easier path out.  Powered by a pumping heart, most of his blood was gone in seconds out the other sphere.  The dog couldn’t survive.
Diana asked over breakfast.  “Bob, have you seen Willis?  He didn’t come when I called this morning.”
He sighed.  “I’d meant to tell you this later, but he’s dead.”
“What?” asked James, who’d just come into the kitchen to grab a bite on the way out the door.  “What happened to him?”
“All I could tell is that he lost a lot of blood.  I’ll bury him this morning.”
Diana said, “I hope he wasn’t shot.”  They had lost five dogs in the years they had lived in the country.  Every one was a loss, but the ones that hurt the most were the dogs that got into trouble chasing livestock and took a bullet.  County law was clear and protected the farmer, but something like that put a permanent wall up between neighbors.
“No.  I didn’t see anything like that.  Life in the country is dangerous, especially for little dogs.”  Bob hated to lie, even if the words were true enough.
But he’d spent the night cleaning up the blood, and agonizing over what he had done.  Teleportation had to remain a secret, even to his grave if necessary.
It was just too dangerous.
Willis had given him an immediate reality check.
He’d created a weapon that could effortlessly scythe down whole armies, whole nations.  If he lived out his life with only Willis’ blood on his hands, he could count himself very lucky.
“I should never have let him out last night,” said Diana.
“No, dear.  He visited me in the work shed last night.  If it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine.”
James checked the clock.  “I would like to stay.  Could you write me a late note for school?”
Bob nodded, and went to get the shovel.  Up in the northeast corner of the property were the graves of the dogs that came home to die.  Willis was small.  He wouldn’t have to dig it very deep.
But as he grasped the handle of the shovel, his eyes started to water.  Digging graves was the hardest task of all.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Emperor Dad (Part 4 of 47)

© 2003 by Henry Melton

The house looked deserted when James came home a few days later.  Dad spent most of his time out in his office.  Some of the days, he drove Mom to work, so that he could have the car, but whatever he was doing on the computers seemed to be taking up all of his time.  
After rummaging through the pantry and coming up with a bag of microwave popcorn, he prepared for a snack.  Right before he pressed the start button, the phone rang.
“Hello?” “Hello?”  Dad on his extension had answered at the same time.
“Hey, Jimbo!”  It was Drake.
“I’ve got it Dad.”  There was a click.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“I left my Government notebook in your pickup.  I need it.”
James felt a twist in the pit of his stomach.  How could he get it to Drake’s house?  He certainly couldn’t come over here to get it.  But Dad was home.
“Are you sure?”
“Yeah.  I forgot it.  So sue me.  Can you bring it over?”
“Um.  Let me go hunt for it.  I’ll call you back.”
James went out the front door and around to the driveway.  He was head down, digging under the seat when he heard the garage door opening up.
He looked up, the worn and dog-eared spiral notebook in his grasp.  Dad was standing beside the pickup, garage door opener in one hand, and a tool kit in the other.  The movement caught his father’s attention.
“James!  I didn’t see you there.”  He set the tools on a shelf and pressed the opener again.  As the door rumbled he looked at the notebook.
“What have you got there?”
James was tongue-tied for two heartbeats—not a long time at the rate his heart was pounding.
“Uh.”  He had to say something.  “It’s Drake’s notebook.  I need to get it over to him.”
His father said nothing for an age.  The garage door closed, finally, and he put the opener in his pocket.  He glanced at his watch.
“Okay.  We promised your mother that you would stay out of evening rush-hour traffic.  I’ll ride along.”  And before James could react, he opened the passenger side door and strapped himself in.
There was no choice.  James started the engine.  His heartbeat sounded louder.  Did Dad know he had been driving Drake home?  No side-trips.  Mom said that.  Dad had agreed.  
Keeping his eyes on the road, but trying to sneak looks at his father’s face as they drove over to Drake’s place, James worried about what he was thinking.
When he pulled into Drake’s driveway, he killed the engine and reached for the notebook, but his friend was too quick for him.  He ran up to the window.
“Hi, Mr. Hill.”  He grabbed the notebook.  “Thanks Jimbo.  Sorry for the extra trip.  Slick had talked my ear off and I was too anxious to get out of range.  Remind me next time, won’t you.”
James just nodded.  His father smiled and returned the goodbye.
When they were halfway home, he couldn’t take it any more.
“Yes, James?”
“I’ve been taking the guys home after school.  I know Mom had said no side trips, but it was just impossible to say no.”
There was no reply for a quarter mile, but as they approached home, he said, “James, I don’t believe it’s ever impossible to say no.  But I do understand.
“I’m disappointed.  I’ve always wanted you to be responsible.  We gave you our trust, and it hurts to find out that you have betrayed it.”
James felt his insides twist up.  For as long as he could remember, nothing hurt worse than his father’s calm disappointment.  He pulled into the driveway and turned off the engine.
Dad put his hand on his shoulder.  “Honesty is important too.  I’m glad you told me.  I’ll talk to your mother.  She’s getting used to the idea that you are driving.  Perhaps it makes sense for you to help out your friends.”
Back in his office, the shed’s window open to let in a little breeze, Bob Hill sat down at his desk and stared at the stack of bills.
I’m the biggest fraud.  How could he come down on his son for hiding a minor infraction from him when he was hiding so much more from Diana?
He hadn’t been paying any attention to his family, had he?  If James hadn’t confessed, he would have been oblivious to it all.  With Drake’s notebook right there and the boy blurting out what had happened, he’d been lost in his own problems, thinking about the Bellerman equations.
He looked at the bills.  Their household debt was climbing, and that didn’t even count the three new computers he’d purchased to add computing horsepower to his little network.
And hidden somewhere in the stack of papers was the little check he’d received from his last job.  It would hardly cover his expenses.  As a businessman, he was a failure.  He should confess it all to Diana, and spend his time and energy hunting for a real job.
But the Bellerman space—it was such an intriguing concept.  He reached into his desk drawer and pulled out a sketch.  The crude diagram for an initiator was the key.  If he could just build it!
Drake tapped him on the shoulder.  “Hey, any second thoughts about the movie?”  He set his lunch tray down beside his.
James shook his head.  “Sorry.  But it’s all your fault for forgetting your notebook.  Just be happy I’ve got permission to drop you off after school.  Otherwise you’d be back in Frank’s car.”
Drake nodded across the room to where Suzie was eating with her friends.  “I’d bet you’d take her to the movies.”
James concentrated on his pizza slice.  “Um.”  It wasn’t a topic he cared to discuss.
Bob hesitated over the letter he’d pulled from the mailbox.
It’s ridiculous to turn down a job offer.  His work for Terrain Resources must have made a better impression than he’d thought.  Now they wanted a bid for another project.  He returned to the shed.
The web browser showed a line of thunderstorms approaching.  He let the letter drop to his desk.
I can’t think about that now.
An old beat-up folding table in his work shed held two gadgets he intended to connect today.
Unpainted, and missing the fancy decals, was the most powerful model rocket he could find in the local hobby stores.  At its base was a trio of H-class engines, much more powerful than the D’s he used years ago when he built hobby rockets for fun.
The other gadget was copper tubing in a wooden frame to channel the lightning strike, pinching it into an intense magnetic field.  The electronics box was enclosed in a soldered copper shell.
It’s the best I can do on my budget.  It had taken close to two thousand dollars, and he had no idea what he would tell Diana if she ever found out.
There was a brief rattle of hail on the metal roof of the work shed.  It’s coming.
He pulled on a green poncho and carefully loaded the gear into a wheelbarrow.
As he headed out into the pelting rain, he thought, I feel like Ben Franklin.
The rain felt good on his head.  James grabbed for a water bottle with the rest of the defensive team and labored to catch his breath.  Slick was out on the field, trying to crack the Bulldog’s defense.
He wished him luck.  A dozen times already, the announcer had said, “Play stopped by 53, James Hill”.  He was doing well, and his teammates had slugged him plenty to show their appreciation.
The crowd came into focus.  Normally he tuned them out, concentrating on the game, but today he scanned the crowd.
With his mother at work most nights, he missed her clear voice shouting “Go James!”  And his father was out of town a lot doing his consulting thing.  He should be here tonight, but he was rarely in the stands.  The men of his town tended to walk the fence line, keeping close to the action, shouting encouragement and advice to the players.
Suzie, flushed and waving her pom-poms, blew him a kiss.  
The whistle blew, and his focus snapped back to the field.
Everything was football from then on.  It was a tough game, but at the end, 21-20 was a win no less.  He looked around for his father after the team circled for the coach’s last words and the crowd started drifting out onto the field, but with no luck.  Then the team went to their bus, the band went to theirs, and the cheerleaders went to their minivan.  The drive back to the school was a pleasant celebration, but they were all tired.
After the showers and the congratulations, he went outside.  The rain was letting up and many people were standing outside anyway, talking about the game.
Suzie dashed out of a doorway and hopped into the pickup beside him.
“Change of plans,” she said hurriedly.  “Cheerleaders are having a late meeting, and I’ve got to stay.”
“I’ll wait.”
“No need.  We’re going to Julie’s house after.”
And before he could complain, she leaned into a kiss.  His arm went around her and he could have stayed that way forever, feeling the heat between them.
She broke the kiss and left.  “Gotta go!”
This is nuts.  He sat still for a moment, tasting her makeup and letting his heartbeat settle.
I should ask her out—a regular date.  This hit and run stuff is going nowhere.