Monday, March 7, 2011

Catacomb (Part 3 of 5)

© 1985 by Henry Melton

Judith rapidly keyed the logoff and dashed out of her room, not waiting to view the message on the screen
Supper was a table piled high with leaves. Even the meat loaf had green things in it. Mother was in that stage of gardening when she was spending fifteen hours a day just trying to keep up with the production.
A strong scent of spices and vinegar drifted in from the kitchen. Judith smiled at the thought that Lunae's sensitivities were infecting her own. She had seen other kids mimic the dress and habits of their on-line characters. But she wasn't going to start carrying a dagger up her sleeve!
Father had a distant, preoccupied look. Judith could sympathize with that condition better than her mother could.  She and her father were the family members who spent the most hours on the terminals. The world on the other side of the glass tube absorbed one's attention.
Mother was giving a running commentary on her battles with the leaf miners and the fire ants.  This was her year for trying totally organic gardening, and she constantly missed the use of her chemical weapons to fight against the ravening hordes.
Barry was unsympathetic. "Why don't you just use that white powder stuff you used last year? We won't tell on you."
"That's enough." Father had less interest in the war against the insects than Barry did, but there was such a thing as parental solidarity. "Barry, I won't need your help for a couple of days. It sounds like Mother could use a couple of spare hands with the garden. Starting in the morning."
"Aww! Come on, Dad! Jay and Toot and me we've got a COMMANDER game in the morning!" Barry visibly reined in his indignation and picked at the spinach leaves on his plate. To Judith's sisterly eye, it was an obviously staged acquiescence. Father would never stand for open disobedience.
"Just where were you going to have this game?" Father made the word sound indecent. "At home or at the arcade terminal?"
"Well," Barry spoke cautiously, "the graphics are better at Spacer's World than at home. And the faster baud rate there would give me an edge."
"Just how were you going to pay for the time?"
Barry glanced up at his father's impassive face and spotted the smirk on Judith's. He mumbled something no one could hear and took another bite of the salad.
Father continued, "If I recall correctly, you blew all of last week's allowance on COMMANDER. I heard you ask your mother for some money yesterday. Since allowance day is the day after tomorrow, I don't see where you could have gotten any money to pay for your game tomorrow. Since I don't suppose Spacer's World gives credit, you wouldn't be able to play there tomorrow anyway. And since your games-account suspension here at home doesn't run out for another two weeks, you couldn't play here either.
"So, it seems to me that you will have plenty of time to help your mother in the garden. Isn't that right?"
Judith felt a little sympathy for Barry. Not much, but a little. Father's logical traps were painful. There were ways to pay for game time that Barry could have lined up, but these were either forbidden or unacceptable methods. Who in the family could forget the time Barry's games account was suspended because he had charged several games to Father's business account?
"Judith," her mother asked, "could you help me clean up after supper? I need to run to the store."
Judith resigned herself to the delay and nodded.  Now was not the time to plead that she had a game in progress. Barry shot her a sneer on general principles.
Barton Creek Mall had changed over the years. Judith didn't particularly like to shop there with her mother. It was a fun place if you went there with friends, but mothers were different.  Most of the larger department stores had gone on-line and were gradually deserting the shopping malls. Sears and Penneys had left, leaving their areas subdivided into an Arabian maze of market stalls. The mall was the place to go to sample a dozen varieties of egg rolls, to buy hand-carved earrings, or to lose a few hours in a COMMANDER booth.
A trio of players, just old enough to grow beards, were waiting for a booth outside the entrance to an arcade and watching the pair of them as they walked by. Mother didn't seem to notice, but Judith was glad she wasn't alone. Lunae could handle any trouble from the likes of them, but Judith wouldn't even know how to handle one of her sleeve daggers.
She shook her head to rid herself of the thoughts.  Those boys weren't like her thief, out for trouble in a lawless world. Maybe the mall did have some permanent residents that were a bit smelly, but no one was going to accost her mother and her during prime time.
They shopped their way through a bottle shop, an herb market, and an office supply house. Then, at Judith's urging, they stopped for a slice of pizza.
"We're not too far from Reitz. Did you want to stop and get that practice book you asked for?" Mother asked.
"No. Not tonight." Diana worked at that shop. She didn't want to see her just yet.
Mother frowned and put down her pizza. "Now, Judith, you aren't going to give up on your music just because Brentwood Academy doesn't have a school band program, are you? They have a nice orchestra!"
"No! I'm not going to quit." Judith bit back. "I like my music. It's you and Father who are trying to take me away from all the good teachers and all my friends. "
"Now, Judith. You know we are only trying to get the best education for you and Barry. Brentwood isn't a big high school, but they have excellent teachers."
"And no music program."
"No band. They do have an orchestra. Are you sure you are interested in the music, not the football games?"
"Mother, that's not true!" And with a flushed face, Judith left the table and headed out the shop. Her mother, a little flushed herself, picked up the packages and followed.
Judith paid no attention to the other people in the mall as she made for the parking lot. I'll show them.  I'll get the money, go to the music camp, and make a showing that'll force them to see where my talents lie.


Mike G. said...

"A trio of players, Just old enough to grow beards, were waiting for a booth outside the entrance to an arcade and watching the pair of them as they walked by."

"just", rather than "Just".

"I'll get the money, go to the music camp, and make a slowing that'll force them to see where my talents lie."

"slowing"? Should that be "showing"? Or is "slowing" something we haven't encountered yet in the story?

Henry Melton said...


You know, these look like OCR errors. Which highlights the history of this story. Stories and articles I wrote back in the 70s and 80s had no original files when I went back to resurrect them, so I found the printed magazine and put it on a flatbed scanner and fed the image through Optical Character Recognition software. There were tons of errors, and to this day I don't have a lot of respect for OCR. I cleaned up many of the errors, but some obviously slipped through.

What's interesting is this version, with these errors, has been read by hundreds, perhaps thousands of people from another location on my website and no one sent me a note. I suspect that comments are a lot easier to use than clicking on a mailto URL. More structured perhaps.

Anyway, Mike, thanks for helping.

Rowan Lipkovits said...

I just found my way here after reading the original publishing of the story in an ancient and musty copy of the issue of Dragon Magazine in which it first appeared, and I can vouch that there were several editing and typesetting errors in the original printing... OCR is pretty special technology but it's not yet up to the task of repairing problems in the source text 8)

Another commentator noted this story's influence on the recent novel Ready Player One, and having just recently read that one, I must second it. Kudos on your prescience and your having the foresight to arrive at this rich vein of story material first!

Henry Melton said...

I have to take solace in Gaiman's Law -- “Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.” - Neil Gaiman

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