Friday, June 29, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 2 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 2 -- Mall Talk
Fred was waiting for him at the south entrance, frowning, pointing at his watch as Tommy rumbled past. Luckily, there was a motorcycle parking area close by. Perfect. It was right next to Mall security’s glassed-in cubicle. He locked the bike and stowed the helmet. One last check to make sure he had the electrical system off, and he dashed toward the door.
“You’re late! Kati’s already in, holding our seats.” Fred passed him the ticket and then vanished into the crowd. Tommy hurried, trying to keep him in sight. He glanced at his stub for the door number, and found it quickly. The screen was bright, but the feature hadn’t started yet -- advertisements and previews were still playing. Fred was already moving into the row, taking the first seat.
Kati’s face lit up as he scooted past her bare knees to claim the seat to her right. “You made it,” she whispered. Her smile made the race through traffic worth it.
“Just barely.” And then, the house lights dimmed all the way down. The phone in his pocket was silent, but he felt it primed to vibrate again. He hurriedly fished it out and held the power button until it went dark.
Opening credits appeared over waves, crashing against the rugged stone shoreline. A dark-eyed brunette in a bikini raced in panic for the small inflatable boat bouncing in the surf. The trailers for Caribbean Sunset had promised action and romance, but what had caught his attention had been the sailboats.
“That’s a Zodiac Zoom SR,” he whispered to Kati. He’d seen the small inflatable craft in the boating catalogs they kept getting in the mail. 
Kati nodded at his comment, but she probably didn’t know what a Zodiac was. She’d never come out on his family boat trips, although he’d invited her a couple of times. She’d look spectacular in a bikini.
On the screen, the girl jumped into the boat and struggled to get the outboard motor started. Tommy settled comfortably into his seat, instantly caught up in the action.
Kati gave his hand a squeeze. He squeezed back, not taking his eyes off the screen, silently coaching the actress. Prime it. Press the squeeze bulb on the fuel line!
Fred sneered. “That was a waste of time. Did you notice that after the first crash, the windshield healed itself when they were racing through Miami?”
Kati disagreed, as she sipped on her strawberry drink in the food court. “Well, I felt sorry for her.”
Tommy privately agreed with Fred. He’d come for Caribbean sailing and most of the movie took place with gun-battles between Miami drug dealers. Kati looked his way for a comment.
He shrugged. “I wonder where they filmed the lagoon scene. I should have stayed for the closing credits.” Fred had grabbed Kati and rushed for the exits almost before the final kiss was finished.
“That’s what IMDB is for.” Fred shrugged. “Watching credits is a waste of time.”
Tommy was grateful for the call to pick up their burgers. It relieved him of the duty to argue. But shortly, the topic shifted.
Kati poked him in the chest. “You can not wait until next year to decide on a college! You should be applying for scholarships now. You’ve got the grades. You’ve got the teachers on your side.”
Fred nodded. “She’s right. I’m going to Purdue. My father’s already contacted the dean’s office, and I’ve started my Junior Achievement project -- selling laminated Cubs photos. You’ve gotta get all the pieces in play early or you’ll lose out.”
Tommy stared at his plate. The fries were gone, but he rubbed his finger in the salt. The topic had come up before, but he didn’t have an answer. “I don’t know what I want to do.” He looked Kati in the eyes. “Where are you going to college?”
She looked away. “I have several options.” She wrinkled her nose. “It depends on which scholarships I can wrangle. But we’re talking about you! Don’t you have any idea where you’re going? M.I.T. maybe, or Cal-Tech? You’re so talented with machines.”
He shook his head. “That’s just stuff I picked up from Nick.” He thought about the classes he’d taken. A lot of them were fun, as long as he didn’t have to worry about tests and grades.
“Nothing just jumps out at me.” He nodded at Fred. “You want to run some company, I bet. And you,” he thought about Kati’s interests, “I bet you want to design things.”
She looked startled, “Architecture. Yes. You’re right.”
He’d been thinking clothes or jewelry, but now that she mentioned it, she did talk about odd and distinctive buildings.
“That’s what I mean. You have a solid interest, and to get that kind of a job means you have to go to the right school.”
He shrugged. “But I have no idea what I want to do. Maybe I’ll just hang around in one of the community colleges until I find out what my thing is.”
Kati shook her head. “That’s your father talking. He doesn’t want you to move away, now does he?”
“Oh, it’s not that,” he lied. Thinking of Nick, he reached for his phone. “It’s been hard the past few months, is all.” He turned it on. A few seconds later it buzzed and flashed.
He sighed. More messages. Fred watched with an ill-concealed smirk as he pressed the buttons. It was clear Fred had him labeled, “Loser.”
Five messages, all from his father. 
Nick: M99 0 M0 7:09p
Nick: M50 0 7:39p
Nick: M50 0 8:09p
Nick: M50 0 8:39p
Nick: M50 0 9:09p
Regular as clockwork, every thirty minutes.
M50? Go to the boat? Why does he want me to go to the Marissa?
At least, now he had a valid excuse for taking the motorcycle out.
“Daddy calls?” Fred asked.
How do I get to the harbor from here? I’ll need to find a map, or else take the long way back. He’d never navigated from anywhere but the house. The mall was considerably inland.
After the moment of silence, Kati asked, “Is that right, Tommy?”
“Ah, yeah. I was just thinking. I have to go.”
Kati put her hand on his arm. “You have to stand up to him. He’s just running you around on his treadmill.”
Her touch was nice, but the timing was wrong. “It’s not like that, Kati.” He soaked up the concern in her eyes. “But, I’ve gotta run.”
She looked worried. “Can I take you?”
“I’ve got the motorcycle.” He glanced at Fred, watching him try to conceal a grin. “Sorry to leave you two, but he’s been calling for hours, looks like.”
“Just call him back, and tell him you’ll be late.”
Impatiently, Fred stood up. “I’m getting a refill for my coke. Kati, do you want anything?”
She waved him off. As he walked away, she lowered her voice. “I have to talk to you. I was hoping to get a chance this evening.”
He hesitated. “You could call....”
She shook her head. “We need to talk, face to face. It’s been some time.”
Yeah, because Fred’s always underfoot.
“Tomorrow. I’ll be there early, at the library.”
She nodded. “I still wish you’d stay. What did your father say, exactly? Couldn’t you put him off?”
He shook his head. He had no intention of explaining the codes, or the rules. Kati would never understand, and Fred would make it a joke. 
“I gotta go.”
The motorcycle’s battery gauge read over half-capacity. He’d certainly be able to get home, but he was uncertain about getting to Montrose Harbor, where the Marissa was docked. Certainly, he’d need a recharge going to the harbor first before returning home. And it was already well past sunset. He really should be home, studying. His first final was on Monday. There was no time for Nick’s treasure hunts.
Frustrated, he stabbed the talk button. It went immediately to Nick’s voicemail. He terminated the call.
If you don’t have your phone on, I’m not gonna talk into the box.
But he had no choice, not really.
Why didn’t I look for a map while I was in the mall?
He rode the bike silently out of the parking lot. Oh, well. Chicago was a modern city, with most of the streets laid out in a grid. He could just ride east until he reached Lake Shore Drive. From there, it was a straight shot north to the harbor.
Driving silently made the noises of the city more pronounced. Probably the fake engine noises didn’t take all that much juice, but he didn’t want to risk it.
Kati just doesn’t understand. Okay, so Nick was a little protective. He was just trying to take care of his son. It was just the two of them left. They had to take care of each other.
But to be honest, he was glad Nick had gotten so wrapped up in his job these past few months. He’d rather spend the time alone, or with Kati.
At least he needed to spend time alone with her. It was difficult now that Fred was always underfoot. Kati had been his regular date for movies and first choice for a lab partner at school for two years. He’d worried about moving to Chicago, but she’d made his move from Evansville so easy.
But what does she want to talk about? That could be good or bad. She was kind-hearted. Maybe she needed help telling Fred to get lost. Or maybe she needs the right time and place to break up with me.
A delivery van pulled out into his lane. He swerved hard. The driver never noticed him. 
Chicago traffic! He moved to the slow lane and checked his batteries. Still plenty of juice. There were disadvantages to running silent. He flipped on his sound system and noticed as other drivers looked his way as the rumble of a heavy Harley suddenly blared from his lightweight cycle. 
He looked at the road ahead, still congested as far as the eye could see. He was ready to see signs of the lake. Tops of downtown skyscrapers were where he expected, but still some distance off.
Why did Nick want him to go to the Marissa?
The gleaming white 40-foot sailing boat was the family pride and joy, and one of the reasons Nick took the job in Chicago. Back in Evansville, they’d had a 22-footer that they trailered a hundred miles down to Kentucky and Barkley Lakes from time to time. Nick’s new job gave him the money to graduate to the big blue-water keelboat. Living so close to Lake Michigan gave them the excuse to give up a trailer-boat they could haul from lake to lake for a yacht that could take them all over the world. 
Nick had called the new boat the Marissa even before they’d bought it from the dealer, and Mom was always a little embarrassed to have it named after her.
They had such plans! The 40-footer was spacious, with a cabin that had room to sleep six! They could sail down the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Atlantic. Mom and Nick had taken a bare boat cruise in the British Virgin Islands back before he was born and had always planned to go back.
On the open 22-footer, the Mud Turtle, Nick had taught Tommy to sail. By the time they traded for the Marissa, he was well on his way to getting his own Bare Boat Certification. With that in hand, he’d be authorized to rent a bare boat, one without a crew, and sail it himself from anywhere in the world.
And then things changed.
Nick was always tinkering. No device, not even the new family sailboat was safe from his urge to make modifications. They took the Marissa out of the water even before the fall storms moved in. Nick was enthralled by the idea of replacing the diesel engine with a Sterling/electric hybrid.
One of the great pleasures of sailing was getting away from the noises of the city and the highways. But most yachts like this had an engine in addition to the sails. It was just too practical to be able to put-put away from the harbor instead of attempting to navigate those tight quarters under sail. And besides, calm happens to the best of sailors.
But a diesel was like bringing city noises along with you. A Sterling engine was external combustion, and very efficient. And since there were no explosions in the pistons, no noisy mufflers, just simple burners like on a kitchen stove, the Sterling could be very quiet.
Tommy had helped a little, when they took out the diesel and put in the new engine, but that was the last time he’d seen the boat.
The real Marissa had taken center stage in October.
Mom hadn’t felt well even back in the summer, but she came along on their day sails anyway. Then, cancer was diagnosed. After that, it was one nightmare after another. The disease spread rapidly, far too fast for surgery. They tried radiation and chemotherapy, but it was too late.
Six weeks. Just forty-five days after she was diagnosed, her body gave out from the combined stresses of disease and cure.
Tommy blinked to clear his eyes, and then swerved around a beer truck parked in the right lane, unloading to a restaurant.
Honk! There was an oncoming car, right in front of him. He jammed on the brakes and almost flipped when the rear wheel came up off the ground. He slid up against the truck with a bang!
The white car whipped past -- the driver finger-gestured at him.
Where was he? The road had narrowed, and he hadn’t paid attention. He checked the road signs. Nothing was familiar.
“Hey, you, man! Whacha doin to ma truck, dere!”

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Breaking Anchor - Part 1 of 44

© 2012 by Henry Melton

Chapter 1 -- Codes
“What did you say?” Mr. Turpin interrupted, his face growing red. He pointed to Slab Abbot with his white stick.
Tommy Dorie, two rows over whispered uselessly, “Don’t say anything Slab. You’ll just dig yourself in deeper.” 
He wasn’t the only one mumbling advice. The big black giant, barely fitting into the seat, fumbling with his pencil, was the school hero -- best defense in football and basketball. Slab’s version of English frequently sent Turpin on a tirade.
“Uh. Uh. Mistah Turpin... Uh.”
The teacher shook his head in disgust. “No dribbling in my classroom! If you can’t speak, don’t even try.” He turned back to the board where he’d been listing discussion points about “The Tell-Tale Heart”. If he could feel the angry glares from twenty-plus students, he gave no sign.
Slab just stared at the ceiling and let his pencil roll off the desk, burning up inside. Tommy knew the big guy’s signs; he’d tutored Slab most of the year. Teachers cowed him, but the next guy that faced him with a ball would need to be carried away.
Just then, Tommy’s pocket vibrated. He glanced around, and slipped his slim white phone out, concealed beneath the desk, and slid it open.
Kati: CS@SS 5:05 ? 3:56p
For the first time in a long day, he smiled, Slab’s trials forgotten.
It lasted until he noticed Fred Kelly, the next row over, hunched down, staring at his hand, too.
Kati Statham must have invited both of them. He could really have used more alone time with her, seeing the new movie, Caribbean Sunset at the Skyline Showtime. Every time they tried to do anything, Fred’s ugly face showed up. When he’d mentioned the movie to her yesterday, Fred was right there, making himself part of any plan.
But he couldn’t turn her down out of frustration -- not Kati. She always called the shots. He owed her that much.
He thumbed a response.
U Drv. MYA Circle
His father, Nick, was in heavy project mode, doing his secret company stuff. He wouldn’t be there to pick him up after school anyway, so why not? Any excuse to avoid the worn, ratty benches of the school bus, surrounded by younger kids, was welcome.
A minute later, Fred grinned back at him. She’d relayed the message to him -- meet at the flag circle after class. Tommy lifted his hand from his wrist to show he understood.
“Mr. Dorie? Do you have something to say?”
“No, sir. Just shaking out a cramp.”
Mr. Turpin didn’t buy it, but it was clear the class was out of comments on Edgar Allen Poe and there was nothing much he could do to get the discussion restarted. It was too near the end of the day. The teacher looked around the room, but no one met his gaze. The class had been going well, and then stopped, and he didn’t understand why.
Childers High School in Chicago was a “magnet” school, with good teachers and special programs to coax the affluent to send their kids to a poor neighborhood. That’s just what happened to Tommy. Nick’s mysterious job paid well, but an easy two thirds of his classmates came from families with a lot less. In spite of it all, Tommy was still without wheels.
Nick promised a car when he graduated. He’d need one for college. But he was still a junior and waiting another whole year without his own transportation seemed impossibly tedious.
Nick’s too stubborn! Once his father got an idea in his head, he stuck to it. When Nick Dorie was unavailable, it was up to Tommy to take the school bus or beg a ride from friends.
Class ended, and Fred was out in the first rush, clearly intent on meeting Kati first. Tommy headed after him into the hallway.
“Hey, Tommy-Boy! We need’ta talk.” A big black hand reached out and snagged his shoulder, almost knocking him off his feet.
“Yeah, Slab. I’m in a hurry.” Twisting free at the exit, he turned to face him.
Slab’s smooth skull made his face look small, but it was twisted into a hurt frown. His orange letterman jacket looked like it’d never fit around his chest. “But you said ya’d help wit da Biology.”
“And I will, I promise! It’s just that...someone’s waiting for me.”
Slab glanced toward the parking lot and nodded. “Kitty-Kati. I unnerstand. I just got dis problem in Fifth.”
“And we’ll work it out. But tomorrow, okay? Lunch?”
“Okay, I guess.” He rubbed his nose, a little crooked from last season’s injury.
Kati’s Jeep, easily identifiable by the flower decals and the big ‘Barbie’ logo across the side, pulled out of the main parking lot. Her mother bought her the car last year, already decorated. Tommy smiled reassuringly at Slab and sprinted off. Six month’s ago, he’d helped him on a school project. Now, he’d become a permanent, personal tutor.
It wasn’t hard. Slab was smart enough, he just had to have everything explained to him the right way. It was frustrating. He was on call all the time, like a doctor.
But there were advantages. Being on Slab’s good side made his life at Childers a little easier. Everyone said the politically correct things about racial harmony, but there was no denying that the color barrier was pretty steep. 
Kati Statham, blonde and perfect, looked right at home in her Barbie car. She had the canvas top down, and he could see Fred in the front seat with her, like a weasel version of Ken. Tommy waved.
Almost at the same instant, his phone vibrated, and his jog dropped to a walk. Almost afraid to look, he pulled it out.
Nick: M99 0 4:09p
Oh no. Not now!
Nick had his own text codes, and just like in the games they played, he expected his son to remember them all. Tommy sighed. This message was obvious: Move to location 99, i.e., home, in 0 hours.
Nick was serious about his little games. If Tommy didn’t go home immediately, he’d catch grief for weeks. His tendency to order him around had gotten worse, now that Mom was gone, and Tommy suspected the codes were just a way for Nick to steer him around like a remote-controlled toy car.
He was tempted to press a key and call for clarification. It was against the rules, but sometimes the games were just that -- games. One time, the codes had led him on an elaborate treasure hunt all over downtown Chicago, up the Sears Tower and down the Navy Pier. Hidden blue post-notes and phone codes led him to the ticket counter at Wrigley Field just in time for a game. Other times, it’d been nothing more than a check to see if he were paying attention. A “pop-quiz”, just like all the hundreds of Nick’s impromptu tests Tommy had grown up with.
“Hurry up!” Fred yelled. “We’re blocking traffic.” A rusting tan Cadillac behind them honked.
Tommy stepped on the running-board and climbed over the side. “Just drop me around back. I can’t go.”
Kati’s short blonde head turned back from the traffic for just an instant to read his expression. Her blue eyes did something to his gut, every time.
“Your father again?”
He sighed. “Yeah. No help for it.”
“Stand up to him. I tell you, he’s just compensating for his wife’s death.”
The instant she saw the look on his face, she apologized. “Sorry. I’ll take you home.”
Tommy clamped down on his feelings. No way was he going to let the surge of grief show. Not with Fred watching. 
He forced a smile. “No. You two go on. I’m on a first name basis with the bus driver by now. My house is way out of your way. You won’t make it on time.”
Fred nodded, quickly enough, “Okay, if you say so.” Kati sighed.
Nick: M99 0 M0 5:09p
Go home immediately and stay put.
He closed the phone and muttered, “Okay, Nick! I’m almost there.” 
Tommy nodded to David, the bus driver, and stepped off at the stonework entrance to his street. Forrester Homeowners’ Association kept talking about putting up a gate and closing off the whole area, but it’d been just talk for years. It was a new neighborhood, but with money enough for older looking houses and tall trees supplied by landscapers.
Two things popped into his head as he turned the corner and saw his house. Nick’s weird-looking red electric car wasn’t in the driveway, and a yellow sticker was taped to their door.
He frowned at the notice.
The lawn was a little ragged. There’d been rain, and now there were tufts that had come up and formed seed at the tips. It was time to mow, and the Homeowner’s Association’s rules allowed neighbors to complain if someone was letting their yard look bad.
His bad mood turned worse. They’d had landscape notices before.
Yard work was his job. That meant more wasted hours pushing around the balky electric mower. And he’d have to take care of the grass within three days, or there’d be more complaints.
It’s that electric mower. It’s always stalling and popping the thermal overload switch. 
Nick wasn’t a green fanatic or anything, he was just addicted to gadgets. A fuel-cell powered electric lawn mower was just his thing, even if it lacked a certain... reliability.
Up until that last text message, he’d hoped Nick had come home early. But no car and no explanations.
Click. The door unlocked as he approached. His wallet held a special RFID card, and their custom house-monitoring computer could sense him via radio signals five feet from the entrance.
He ripped the yellow paper off the door and went in.
“Nick! Are you home?” There was no sound.
He plopped into the lounge chair and toggled the TV to the home network. The house computer showed a floor plan. Each room showed its individual temperature and humidity. His avatar icon was blinking in the living room, but there was no sign of anyone else on the property.
“Okay Nick, I’m home. I’m staying put. But why?”
He checked his cell phone again, but nothing new had slipped in. His finger hovered over the Call button.
He’d need a good reason to violate the rules -- good reason in his father’s mind. Nick respected logic, but logic was just scaffolding built on top of assumptions. Nick had a bad habit of discounting assumptions Tommy thought valid. 
He’s too old to remember what it’s like being me.
So, I’m stuck at home. I should be waiting for the movie to start, getting close to Kati, doing my best to be more interesting than Fred.
He wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the table. The artificial flowers in the vase at the center of the table looked dingy. He’d need to dust them soon.
I’ll need to dust everywhere. He looked with fresh eyes at the room. Other than breakfast, and eating fast food Nick picked up on the way home from work, the kitchen was unused. 
Mom had put those flowers on the table. The refrigerator still had her last grocery list clipped to the door with a magnet. The calendar on the wall still showed November of last year.
A year ago, Mom would listen while she worked here. She didn’t say a lot, but when he wanted to talk, she would stop what she was doing and give him her full attention. Nick would give advice, if it were something technical, but Mom just listened, and occasionally asked questions.
“What are you going to do until Nick gets back?”
She would’ve said something like that. Something practical.
But it was a good thought. No sense in fretting. Nick would show up soon enough. 
The idea of mowing the grass came and went. He shook his head. Not today. Let the neighbors stew. There were other chores more appealing.
He got up and dug into the fridge for sandwich makings and a drink.
Homework? There was a little -- mostly review work. Finals were next week. He always had good grades, but he wasn’t in love with schoolwork. Still, it had to be done. He headed for his room.
The bedroom was a scene of chaos. Not only was his computer missing, but drawers were open and clothes he’d put up just last night were scattered on the floor. Someone had been here. Someone had stolen his laptop!
Hurriedly, he checked the entire house. Only one other room was touched.
Nick’s study was a sparse place. Papers were never left out. Normally, his office looked like a real-estate photo, except for dust that collected on bookshelves. 
But, today there were changes. A whole section of the bookshelf was empty. One drawer in his desk was left half open. There were pens and paperclips still inside, but it looked like something larger, say a spindle of DVD’S or something that size, had been taken.
Tommy idly brushed the photo of Marissa Dorie resting on her husband’s desk, and dust came off in a streak. He tugged out his shirttail and cleaned it off. 
Nick did some work here, but he was at his office more hours a day than he was home.
The big desktop machine was running a screensaver. Tommy wiggled the mouse, and a security screen appeared. He entered his own password, but it was rejected. 
Nick’s machine was company property, locked down with a padlock and numerous passwords. As long as it was running some program of Nick’s, it wouldn’t let him on. And it would do no good to pull the power or try to hack in. This machine didn’t even have a hard drive of its own. Everything came in over a secured network connection. Nick had to have a smartcard to even boot the machine.
He wasn’t going to find any hints there.
Was it a thief, or Nick?
There was one way to check. He dashed back to the living room. Behind the couch, he picked up the remote and punched three keys.
In big block letters the house monitor program showed a log of all the day’s events. At the top was his entrance just a few minutes earlier. He scrolled down. 
At 2:03, there’d been an unknown person at the door. Tommy clicked a button on the remote and a video made by the hidden security camera in the eaves showed old Mr. Peterson taping the yellow notice on his door. He could have guessed it was him.
Nick had gone to work early, well before dawn and long before he’d left for school. The house monitor showed him returning at 10:43 in the morning, and then leaving again at 10:55. That was all. It hadn’t bothered to record video of a known resident.
There were no messages for him -- not on the TV, nor email. A single voicemail was flagged for Nick.
“Nick, get back here. Curtis is on the way.” The voice was female, but no one he knew. He checked the info. 11:03. She’d just missed his father. Blocked caller ID -- probably some co-worker. There was never caller ID from his office. They blocked everything, a total security fetish. It didn’t mean anything that she called Nick by his first name. Everyone did that.
Tommy had never been invited to visit his office and didn’t know anyone Nick worked with. Typical paranoid security.
He was used to being out of the loop. That’s just the way his father was -- secrets and ciphers. Just like the text messaging codes on his phone.
“It had to have been Nick,” he finally decided. He was a little relieved. Calling 911 and dealing with the police would be more than he wanted to deal with.
Nick must have needed my laptop. Some emergency. If not, we’re going to have to have another chat about personal privacy.
Nick had made a big deal about how they were just two guys on their own now, and how they had to work together as partners. Not that he’d ever really meant it.
He shook his head. Even homework was out until Nick came back. The only other computer was the house monitor. Tommy knew from experience that hacking into it could be done, but it was more trouble than it was worth. Too much trouble for schoolwork.
The phone vibrated. Finally!
He flipped it open.
Kati: 7:30 showing. Can U make it? 6:55p
Tommy debated a half-second before replying. She’d given him a second chance, and he wouldn’t disappoint her again. If Nick objected, it would be a good time to bring up his missing laptop!
B there in 30.
I’m going! I’ve gotta get out of this place before it drives me crazy.
In the garage, the motorcycle was plugged in to the wall socket. Good. He didn’t remember plugging it in last time. He pulled the key from the hook on the wall and pressed the garage door button. The bike was his for short errands. It was a shame he wasn’t allowed to take it to school.
Silently, he sped down the road. Three blocks later, the phone in his pocket made itself felt. A frown on his face, he flipped on the bike’s sound switch. An MP3 file, recorded with Harley-Davidson engine noise, rumbled out the hidden speakers. Stoically, he ignored the phone’s tingle. No way he was going to play with the phone while driving. Kati was waiting, and the way things had been drifting between them this past month, there was nothing more important than meeting her there on time.
The air in his face felt like freedom.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


Henry's Stories has been in Tales of the U'tanse for some time now, and there are certainly more U'tanse events to come, but the next segment isn't ready yet, and other projects are rattling their claws, seeking their moment on the stage.

So, beginning with the next segment, I will be serializing a previously unpublished YA science fiction novel.  Read it first here!  Breaking Anchor is a contemporary story that I would normally put on the shelf along side the other Small Town, Big Idea novels -- except for one thing.  Chicago isn't a small town.  When it sees book form, about the same time it wraps up here, I'll be putting it in the Home Planet Adventures stack.

I also want to remind all of you that all of these stories are free, and that anyone can drop in, choose a story from the sidebar and begin reading. The only 'payment' I get is your comments and the numbers on the stats page.  If you could share this site with others, I won't face so many self-doubts when it comes to meeting deadlines and preparing stories for the site. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Tales of the U'tanse: Mercy Run - Part 22 of 22

© 2011 by Henry Melton

A couple of hours later, an unknown Cerik, another pilot came to the boat.  He didn’t attempt to speak to James, and James kept silent.  They lifted, and after a brief flight across the landscape, the boat settled near the main entrance of Home.
James did.
People began pouring out of the entrance.
“James!  You’re back.  We thought you were dead!”
Only half of the people were wearing their masks, and they quickly moved inside.  Father raised his hands.  “We will celebrate his return this evening.  But I need to talk with him first.”
It was a long walk back to Father’s office, with the corridors packed with smiling faces.  After so long with the Cerik, and the Ferreer and even the runners, the faces began to look all alike -- family.  He tried to say thanks to everyone, but as he stumbled, he realized just how tired he had become.
Father led him into the office.  Mother was already there.  She looked him over carefully.  
“He’s okay,” she said to Father after a moment.  “And I don’t detect any distortion.”
He nodded.  “That’s good.  James, it’s good to have you back.  I suspect you have a story to tell?”
Some hours after he had lifted off on the journey with Rita, a line of fire had flashed in the sky, stretching between Cerik’s moon and another planet.  When Father had asked about it, he was told that likely the space ship had been destroyed in a charging accident.  It had happened before.  Mother had been monitoring his body at the time and she thought it was possible that he might have made the leap to another star, but she couldn’t be certain.
All they could do was to wait and see.
James gave his version, step by step.
Father shook his head.  “I wasn’t aware that you were going on one of the large ships.  I’m surprised one person was able to fly it.”
“I helped.”  
Father smiled.  “I’ll want a book written, detailing everything you learned about the ship.  We’ll need it eventually.”
When he related the visit with the Ferreer, Mother looked very worried.  “They think of themselves as the next step in evolution.”
“Right.  They don’t think of attachment as a problem.  They had trouble understanding why I didn’t want my brain rewired so I could participate.”
Father scratched his chin.  “It may seem like arrogance on their part, but it worked out in our favor this time.  I had hoped you could get down, drop her off and leave before they could stop you, but they just don’t seem that aggressive.  The hive mind lasts longer than any individual.  It’s easy for them to wait until we ‘evolve’ and join them voluntarily.”
Mother nodded. “And until then, they can study Rita.”
No one smiled.
A feast was planned, but James demanded a bath and clean clothes.  He was turned loose.  There would be other interviews.  He would be working for a long time, documenting what he had seen.
And the star maps will be the hardest. 
From the beginning, one of his secret orders was to view and memorize the star patterns from both the Cerik space and Ferreer space.  Abe had drawn a map from his memories of Earth’s stars, with nearly a five hundred dots on it.  If he could do the same, drawn from his excellent views out the ship’s window, they would have the first possibility of building a three dimensional map of the stars, with some hint as to where the human homeworld might be.
It was going to be a long chore, but maybe some day, they might discover lost Earth.
James slipped into the water with a profound sense of relief.  Did the Cerik bathe?  He certainly hadn’t seen any hint of a bath on their ship.
A familiar splash caught his attention.  Pam swam up.
He smiled.  “I’ve been looking for you.”
She timidly approached.  “I couldn’t get close.  There were too many people.”
“Are you pregnant yet?”
She shook her head.  “I was too upset when they said you might have died.  Why didn’t you let me know you were going on a space flight?”
He shrugged.  “It was a big secret.”
She settled up beside him.  “I cried.”
He put his arm around her.  “I’m sorry.  I almost died, if it’s any comfort.”
She poked him.  “No, it’s not.”
“And I’m taking down the broom, after the feast tonight.”
She leaned against him.  “Can I get my place in line?”
“You’re the first one I’ve told.”
He sighed.  He still had no idea how this whole sex thing would play out.  He still might become a joke among the cousins, but that didn’t seem that important any more.  He had work to do, documenting his trip, an writing a book on how to fly a boat.  And after that, he had to get back into the repair shop.  The hands-on experience he’d gained using the devices made some of the things on his failure shelf worth another look.
“You know, I was given the chance to be a telepath.”
“Oh?  By the Ferreer?”
“Yes.  And I was tempted.  Tempted to be the new Father with Rita as the Mother, starting another U’tanse family on their planet.”
He chuckled.  “When I told that to Father and Mother, they both shuddered.”
“They did?”
“Yes, they said as proud as they were of how their family had turned out, they wouldn’t wish that role on anyone.”
Pam was quiet for a moment.  “Was Rita pretty?”
“Um.  I guess.  She reminded me of you.  Sort of a Pam without a personality.  That was the scary part.  It is so wonderful being home, with real people.
“And I’m really glad you found me.”  He pulled her tighter.
After a moment, he said, “But I’d better get dry, and get dressed.  I’m looking forward to better food than biscuits.”
“And lots of girls trying to get your attention, I bet.”
“They can just wait their turn.”

Friday, June 22, 2012

Tales of the U'tanse: Mercy Run - Part 21 of 22

© 2011 by Henry Melton

The leap across the stars did not take long, but the pilot took care to position the ship into a stable orbit around the planet.
James only had a few minutes before he was called back to the boat.  He found one of the kills.  There was little but bloody bones left in the corridor, and some of those bones were gnawed into pieces.
Who cleans this up? He was the first U’tanse to ever be taken on a space mission.  Did Cerik cubs get the cleanup jobs?
But it looked like this time, as before, the ship was going to be left as is, bloody and all, in orbit.  Would it power itself down?  James didn’t know.  He spent the waiting time as the Cerik piloted the boat down, refreshing his ineda exercises.  He was again back in the Cerik world.
It had been nice, for a bit, to just let my mind relax.  I won’t get a chance to do that again any time soon.
He had been ordered to stay back with the runners.
“<These will likely be sensitive to Cerik air, like the Geisel runners.  I have set...>”
“<Stay put.  I will give you orders with the shouter.>”
James moved back a step.  Just for a moment, as the pilot left the boat, he glimpsed the buildings outside.
This isn’t Home.  Where am I?
It had to be some large Cerik city.  There were many buildings and courtyards wide open under the brown sky.  
He tapped away at the menu pad until he discovered how to show a simple visual display of the surroundings.  The map gave him the details in a small, oddly-accented voice.  This was the Perch of Hagnel -- the Name of the Tenthonad clan who owned him.  
It made sense.  The pilot had come to the Name to report on his mission.  I just hope that I survive it.  He had great faith in Father.  Father had defended the U’tanse since the beginning.  But did Father even know that he was back?
He watched the view outside.  As near as he could tell, the boat had landed in a large courtyard.  There were a number of Cerik around, and more were arriving.  They all seemed to keep their distance.
Afraid of Ferreer contamination, probably.  And that was one point in favor of his early death.  Somebody out there was arguing for his quick slaughter, just to be on the safe side.  Even the pilot was at risk for the same reasons.  
James remembered the thoughts Rita had pulled from the pilot.  Something about a guild that had sabotaged the mission.  The pilot wanted them dead.
Could he have gone on a revenge hunt?  And if so, what would happen to him?
I have to get Home.  
The training he’d gotten all his life was simple.  The U’tanse would survive if they were no threat, and they were useful.
I need to be useful.  He couldn’t argue that he wasn’t a threat.  A super intelligent hive mind might have planted some hidden trigger in his brain -- one that he wouldn’t be aware of.  
I have to be ready to report everything I’ve learned about the Ferreer.  They might even demand I drop my ineda.
That’s why assertive thoughts were needed.  He needed to be ready to think only about his experiences on the planet and his strong opinions.  And nothing else.
The runners began some kind of squabble among themselves.  It was quickly over.  You obviously have no idea you’re surrounded by hundreds of bloodthirsty predators.
James looked them over again.  Four was a dangerously low breeding pool, but if they could be cultivated as yet another rare food item for the Cerik, they could be very valuable.  The Ferreer, like little green men with tails, had told him that the Cerik who had been absorbed had all liked the taste of this variety.  They were a peace offering to a species who didn’t understand what peace was.
From all he knew, he suspected they would be poisoned by the Cerik air, but the Name knew about that issue already with the Geisel runners and the U’tanse.  The pilot wasn’t concerned, but he’d need to make that clear if questioned.  It would be sad to bring them here, just to have them curl up and die from the air.
On the display, there was a group of Cerik approaching from one avenue.  The crowd began to appear more agitated.
“<U’tanse!  Release the runners.>”
It was the pilot, speaking into some gadget, a shouter, strapped to his chest.
All of them?  Surely not.
But that larger Cerik beside him just might be the Name himself.  Be subservient.
“<For the Name.>”  He managed to shout, without too much of a stutter.
He opened the gates and pushed them all out.  He didn’t attempt to follow.
The rule of survival here was to follow orders.  No more.  No less.
He dashed back to the display.  
Poor things.  The runners dashed back and forth, penned into the center of the courtyard by the very dangerous beasts all around them.
There was a shout.  It didn’t come over the boat’s shouter, but it was loud enough to be heard through the hull.  The Name was saying something very formal, some kind of chant.  James puzzled out part of it.
He could only shake his head as the Name, the pilot, and one other large Cerik moved in on the runners.  It looked more like a dance than a hunt, but a hunt it was.  The grazers were trapped, and from three sides, the giant beasts with formidable jaws and sharp claws closed in, until in an explosion of blood, all four were torn apart and eaten.  The surrounding crowd cheered, only wishing that they could have participated.
So much for a valuable crop.  As near as he could understand from the stilted chant, the Name had considered it more important to publicly slaughter beasts from the Ferreer planet than any economic considerations.
James shook his head.  Maybe they were right.  No other Name on the planet could claim to have taken blood from the Ferreer planet.  That was a very Cerik kind of brag, and just might be worth it.
And if the pilot had been sent on the mission as punishment, he must have come up in the world to have been permitted to participate in the kill.