Stories

The comet – pt. 4

The world really is a crap place. Going to hell. Fast. And getting worse by the microsecond. And then the comet comes along.

 

It just gets worse. Ever hear of the Purge? Something like that. People become the worst versions of themselves. Every vice, every weakness suddenly comes to the surface, with the end of the world imminent. It’s like the whole damned world has lost its mind.

 

I’ve seen people killed, right in front of me, and nobody tried to stop them. I didn’t fight back. I just stood there, idiotic. Like it was happening on TV, not right in front of my face.

 

“How did it make you feel?”

 

F— you. That’s how it made me feel. F— you. What kind of a question is that?

 

“This isn’t about the whole world, Tommy. This is about you.”

 

How can it be about me? I’m not the one crashing into the Earth and killing everyone. I’m just along for the ride, like the whole lot of us. There’s nothing I can do about it. We’re all f—ed. That’s what we are. F—ed. And I can’t stop anybody from hurting themselves, or hurting somebody else, because we’re all gonna die, anyway.

 

“We were always all going to die, anyway, Tommy. Is that why you started using heroin? To run away and not take responsibility for anything?”

 

How can I take responsibility for anything? I didn’t make this mess! I can’t fix it. Nobody can fix it!

 

“So you stood there. You watched it happen.”

 

Yeah. I stood there.

 

“You didn’t do anything.”

 

What could I do?

 

“How did it make you feel?”

 

Helpless. I felt helpless, ok? Damn you and your stupid questions!

 

“Now we’re getting somewhere.”

 

 

“Yesterday over two dozen reports of mass lynchings, and that’s just in America.

 

“It appears local vigilantes all over the country are having the same idea, and ‘cleaning up’ their neighborhoods. There doesn’t seem to be anything the police can do to quell this new violent trend.”

 

“That’s an unfortunate, but understandable, sociologic response to the cataclysmic societal events occurring around the globe, and manifesting in people’s every day lives, Martha.”

 

“Dr. Fitzpatrick, can you finally admit this lawlessness, this anarchy, is simply a foreshadowing of the complete societal breakdown to come?” Martha O’Neill knew she had the sociologist cornered this time. The smugness shown through the tone of her questions.

 

“Not at all, Martha. A readjustment in societal norms, perhaps. But a social breakdown? No, I do not see that.” Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick was resolute that society was not being destroyed in the face of the comet’s certain wrath, and likely unavoidable extinction of the human race.

 

“The justice system doesn’t appear to be working. Vigilantes all over the country are taking the law into their own hands. Are you not alarmed by these developments, Doctor?”

 

“I do not agree with their methods, Martha. I would prefer a more organized social structure. But, there is not mass hysteria. These appear to be well organized attempts by well meaning people to keep peace where they live. I do not condone this vigilantism. But so far as what it says about our ability as a species to retain a distinguishable social order in the face of insurmountable odds? I do remain hopeful.”

 

“Thank you, Dr. Fitzpatrick. I would expect nothing less from you. ‘Hopeful.'” Martha was shaking her head.

 

“Thanks for having me.” The doctor smiled.

 

Fade to black, “And we’re out!”

 

“You know, you really are something, Neil.”

 

“Yes, Martha. I have a lot of practice.”

 

“One of these days I’m going to make you admit there’s no hope, Doctor.”

 

“You know, Martha, one of these days, you just might.”

 

 

The preacher sat in his cell. He was awaiting trial, on charges of raping and killing those two angels. He was thankful for the guards. The mob was demanding blood. There had been two attempts to breach the walls of the county jail this past week. The other prisoners were all aware of who he was, and what he had been accused of doing. Thankfully, most of the prisoners had been released, as the County Judge didn’t have much stomach for keeping drug addicts and petty criminals behind bars with the end of the world looming.

 

So the jail was mostly empty, which made it easier to keep the preacher isolated and away from all other inmates. So the threat from inside the walls was minimal — limited primarily to the guards themselves.

 

Gil Hadley, the Sheriff, understood this. Sheriff Hadley was a good man. He had personally overseen the dragging of the Des Moines River last summer. He knew the toll this case had taken on the community. He had spoken to the members and elders of First Community Parish, where they had uniformly defended the preacher’s honor. He had looked into the pleading eyes of the parents of the two missing girls, and tried to understand their pain. And the preacher had confessed.

 

Well, not confessed to harming the young girls. But he had confessed to being the last person with them. He says he baptised them in the river, and then taken them to the barn to pray. And that’s where it had happened.

 

When asked why he had acted alone, why there were no other witnesses to the baptism, the preacher had said God told him to do it this way. When asked if he had ever baptized and prayed with other young children, alone, he said, no, this was the first time.

 

Witnesses seemed to back this up. No other reports had surfaced of the preacher engaging in this type of behavior in the past. Of course, nobody believed the girls had just disappeared. But there was no evidence to contradict this theory, as outlandish as it was.

 

And so the sheriff was uncertain. And even if he knew for sure the preacher had killed those two little girls, he wouldn’t give him up to the mob outside. And so he had taken special precautions, even with his own men, especially with his own men, to be certain no harm came to the preacher before he could be properly tried.

 

That was his sworn duty, as sheriff of this county. And he would see to it that his solemn oath was upheld, to the very best of his ability.

 

And tonight that meant standing guard, as a mob of at least 200 men stood outside and threatened to burn down his jailhouse.

 

 

 

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Stories

The comet – pt. 3

“REPENT! Repent, I say, in the name of the Lord!”

I finally wander out onto the street after a week, and the first thing I encounter is this fool? He looks a bit wild eyed, a little disheveled, like he hasn’t slept in days, certainly not in a bed.

I’m one to talk. My clothes are filthy. I’m sure I’ve been wearing them for a month. I think I pissed myself, but I’m not sure. Maybe when I was nodded in a dark corner, someone pissed on me? But that must have been a few days ago by now. And I stink. Really bad.

Though I’ve been in a dark hole, literally, it’s not like I haven’t seen the news. Yeah it’s a dope house. But this is the twenty-first century, and even dope houses have flat screen TVs. Plus I’ve got my iPhone. It’s a little dated, but it still works. I’ve got a constant news feed. And Candy Crush. A real modern man.

“You there! Have you given your life to Christ?” I’ve seen guys like him before, on city street corners, standing on a soap box, preaching to the birds. But today something’s different. People are standing around, listening to him, like he has something to say. At least a dozen or so, maybe fifteen.

“I said, have you given your life to Christ?” He had gotten off his soap box, and was standing in front of me, speaking directly to me. I was a bit startled, and didn’t know how to respond. Everyone was looking at me.

“I’m not sure what you want from me,” I croaked. My throat was dry, and I realized I hadn’t spoken in days. I really had no idea what he meant. I’d spent my whole life avoiding questions like this one. And now, when confronted face to face, with witnesses no less, I didn’t know how to respond.

“What’s your name, Son?” He spoke calmly. He looked me directly in my eyes. His eyes were deep, like saucers. There was a peace there that I hadn’t noticed before.

“Tommy. Tommy Paterson.”

“Well, Tommy, the end is nigh. You know that. It’s time to make a choice. Are you going to die with the devil, or are you ready to live again, with Jesus Christ?” His voice was soothing, even hypnotic.

I was about to give in. A dog barked nearby, and it broke the spell. Suddenly I looked at my phone, and with a bit more confidence, I said, “Look, I’ve got to go now. And anyways, I’ve got 734 days to decide.” With that, I walked away. Quickly.

“Well don’t wait forever, Tommy!” he called after me, “You could still get hit by a bus, and you don’t want to burn in hell for eternity because you waited too long to make a decision!”

Darlene loved Hawaii. Almost as much as she loved her job. She was spending her afternoons on the beach, working on her tan. And nights were even better. As a Planetary Scientist, on loan to NASA, from MIT, she was working on a study, comparing gas giants, their density, composition, size, and age. She had a theory, but more than anything, she loved looking at the sky. And the W. M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, at an elevation of 4,145 meters, provided one of the premier looks at the night sky of anywhere on the Earth.

Dr. Darlene Benjamin. She had completed her doctoral studies last fall. And now she was a full fledged scientist, working for NASA. Well, on temporary assignment, anyways. Not bad for a girl from Omaha.

Dr. Benjamin spent a good amount of time looking at the sky. She had a list of over two hundred known gas giants she wanted to observe. There was no way she would complete her study in the three weeks she’d been allotted on the telescope. Which was fine with her. That just meant she’d have to come back. She still couldn’t believe her good fortune, to get three weeks of telescope time. But it was June, and the primary scientist was leaving on vacation, so she’d gotten the call. Where did someone go on vacation from Hawaii? Apparently Greece was as good an answer as any.

She always arrived by 10pm. But the real work never started until about midnight. She would program the coordinates of the planets she wished to observe that night. And the telescope would automatically turn and follow the planets, taking in and recording all the required data. Darlene didn’t spend too much time analyzing. That would take months. No, she spent her time alternating between looking at the sky, and checking to make sure all the data was being recorded accurately.

A little after one a.m. a small patch of sky caught her eye. She wasn’t sure why. Darlene had spent her whole life looking at the sky. And she knew that if something was attracting her attention, she’d better look twice.

At 1:23 she saw it. A slight blur. It wasn’t there moments before, and now it was. She was recording everything, ever the scientist. She felt that excitement of discovery in her belly. She had no idea how it was about to change her life.

“Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake. I pray the Lord my soul to take. God, please bless Mommy, and Daddy, and baby Susie. Please bless the comet, that it decides not to destroy the Earth, and it goes somewhere else instead. Amen.”

“Amen. That was a beautiful prayer, Samuel.”

“Daddy, why did the comet decide to destroy the Earth? Were we bad?”

“Sammy, the comet doesn’t decide anything. It is just an object. Given enough time, it becomes a certainty that an object, maybe something big, like the comet, would hit the Earth. We just happen to be the unlucky ones who are alive at this time, and get to feel the effects.”

“That doesn’t make any sense to me, Daddy. For something so terrible to happen, and for it to be by chance. No, I think the comet is sent here for a reason. I think it must be destroying the Earth on purpose.”

“Did you hear someone say that? Wherever did you come up with such an idea?”

“I thought of it in my own head, Daddy. I think the comet knows what it’s doing.”

“No, Son. The comet does not think. It does not feel. It is a mindless thing. It has no idea it’s going to hit us, and materially alter both our realities. Now go to sleep.”

“Good night, Daddy. I love you.”

“Good night Sam. You really are something. Love you, too.”

As he left his son’s room, almost closing the door, but not quite, Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick wondered about what Samuel has said. And why would the little boy think such things?

He was still wondering that same thing when he appeared on CNN at ten p.m. later that night in a round-table discussion on the state of the comet.

One thought kept coming back to him: “Out of the mouths of babes.”

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Stories

The comet – pt. 2

“You know, human nature is a remarkable thing.

“During the days when the world first learned of the comet, there was, understandably, chaos, Martha,” Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick addressed the anchor from CNN. “But what’s truly amazing, is how quickly society has returned to a recognizable order.”

“One-third of essential service workers still have not reported back to work.” Martha O’Neill was citing statistics widely touted by the Network. “Almost half of the US workforce have elected to stay home, rather than go to work, giving reasons such as ‘need to protect my home from looters’ and ‘want to spend more time with family.’ How do you respond to this, Doctor?”

“Well, Martha, more people are returning to work every day. In the first few days, those numbers were far more dismal. Frankly, I’m encouraged.”

“There you have it. Leading sociologist, Dr. Neil Fitzpatrick, is encouraged. Thank you Doctor. I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of you here on CNN.”

“Thank you for having me.”

The screen fades briefly to black before the Network is on to its next story — certainly another angle on the comet — really the only story these days.

“And we’re out!” a producer yells from off camera.

“Neil, you don’t really believe society is returning to normal. Marshall Law still is in effect in every country. Looting is a nightly occurrence. Daily even. There are abuses and brutalities being reported almost nonstop. Yes, maybe there are some slight pockets of ‘normalcy,’ but come on, as we near the end, there will be increasing lawlessness. Some say anarchy.” Martha O’Neill was the top rated news anchor with the top rated news show on the top rated news network. She was pleading with Dr. Fitzpatrick to see the reality of the situation.

“Martha, you have dozens of ‘experts’ willing to come on air and cite doom and gloom statistics for your Network. I’m your ray of sunshine. That’s why you call me. Just accept it!”

“But Neil, you don’t really believe what you’re saying…”

“Martha, I believe what I believe, and I say what I say. Shall never the twain meet,” mangling Sam Clemens. “I’ll see you tonight, Martha.”

“Yes, my producers can’t get enough of you. They keep yelling at me not to be too hard on you. On air.”

“We’re fine, Martha,” the doctor smiled, “be as hard on me as you like.”

“Bye, Neil.” Martha shook her head. No matter how deluded he seemed, she just couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe he knew something he wasn’t saying.

“Well, look what the cat dragged in.” Sgt. Jackson sneered.

“Officer Barnes reporting for duty, Sir.”

“After twenty-six days? I believe you told me, when I called you, and I quote, ‘Go f—yourself.’ Now, is that any way to talk to your superior?”

Officer Kenneth Barnes stood at attention, willingly accepting the verbal punishment. “Sir, I was under a lot of stress. I apologize. It won’t happen again.”

“Damned right it won’t happen again. I’ll kick your a–.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“Tell me why I should take you back on my police force?”

“Because I love my job, Sir. I was born to protect and serve. And if our City ever needed police, we are needed now, more than ever.”

“We’re working doubles. That doesn’t mean the same thing it used to mean. It means don’t expect to be going home anytime soon. I haven’t been home. And I mean since the news. We’re sleeping here, Officer. My wife brings me my meals, and that’s the only time I see her. You figure it out. Any questions?”

“No, Sir.”

“Welcome home. Damned glad to have you, Officer Barnes.” The corners of his mouth upturned slightly, making the sneer look somehow even meaner.

A calm had descended over the City of Sacramento. Downtown looked like a ghost town. Windows broken. Debris strewn on the streets. Stores emptied of their valuables. It wasn’t rioting, so much as lawlessness. The police had stood down. The National Guard were holding the major intersections, as checkpoints. There was no law in the City, but in order to pass from one part of the City to the next, you were expected to pass through a checkpoint. Of course, all the locals used surface streets to go around the barriers. The only real borders in the City were formed by its two rivers. Between them, gangs had free reign.

But it didn’t take long for the people to organize. Small bands. Vigilantes. It was largely these vigilantes who restored order, first in their own neighborhoods.

“You can go down the street and do that. Down the street and around the corner,” Jack said. “But not here.” Jack Dwyer had organized ten armed men in his neighborhood to keep watch.

He addressed the leader of a dozen or so young Hispanic men, a nascent gang. “If I can see you do it, I will stop you. I’m not telling you to be good. I’m telling you, ‘Not here.'”

The young men groused. They were stirring for a fight. But their leader had already seen men with rifles hiding behind fences and curtained windows. Jack had promised him he was willing to die today, and the young leader would be the second one dead.

Jack didn’t blink. He was calm and resolved. He didn’t want to fight these boys. But he was unwilling to give up his home to them. If he had to kill, or be killed, if that was the price, then that’s what he was willing to pay. For peace.

“We will go.” The young chieftain was defiant. But also wise. He turned and led his troop away.

Jack stood silently and watched them go, thankful to have avoided a fight.

Food was a major issue. Water. Then electricity. In that order.

Peace and order were hard enough. And hospitals and healthcare. And firefighting. All things Americans, and much of the world, take for granted everyday. In some parts of the world, these were always daily struggles. And now, in America, they were, too.

As a basic human needs, water comes well before food. Humans can live for weeks without food. But after only a few days without water, vital bodily systems begin to shut down. After a week without water, most people will die.

As a practical matter, water is more easily maintained, or restored, via the infrastructure in place. It only takes a few workers to keep the water system running, at least to above a survival level. Same with electricity. The electric grid works. And so long as there are enough workers to keep it running, electricity can be maintained in people’s homes and businesses. Major manufacturing plants may have some difficulties, but basic survival level electricity was not too difficult to maintain.

Food was a different question. In the grocery store shelves is only about a three day supply of food. The food supply depends upon a huge network, from farmers, to truck drivers, to storehouses, to supermarkets. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The food supply chain is complex, and easily broken. For more than a week there was no food in America. You can’t depend on the Red Cross, when everyone is in need. There simply was no food chain. Until there was.

About two weeks in, the trucks started moving again. Shipments were received by local markets. Food was purchased. At first, food couldn’t even be placed on shelves. Customers bought the goods right off the pallet, or out of the back of the truck.

It was spontaneous, and nothing short of a miracle, that the food supply suddenly started working again. Nobody really knew the story of how it had happened. It should have been the subject of much speculation and wonder. In a calmer time, with room for theorization, economists would no doubt be debating exactly the process by which the supply train was restarted, like a stopped heart, and restored. But, for now, most people didn’t think twice about it, or even remember to be thankful.

Though their very lives depended on it.

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Stories

The comet

The needle reminds me I’m still alive. The world might be ending, but to see it, I’ve got to last long enough. I just don’t know that it matters anymore.

Two years. That’s when they say the comet will hit the Earth. Plenty of time to put my affairs in order. Get clean. Tell Mom I love her. Find my kids. Maybe get a job, and die respectable.

Sounds like a plan. But first, I’m going to get high. Forget the mess that is my life. Forget the world. We’re both doomed, anyway.

Devlin always did have the best H. But since the news, he’s stopped stepping on it so much. Or maybe at all. Dozens of his loyal clientele have deceased. OD’ed. The heroin is just too pure for them, and they didn’t know. Or perhaps they did know. And took the easy way out.

Don’t think I haven’t thought about it. I’m sure you did, too, when you first heard the news. I’ve seen stories that something like 3% of the world population has already committed suicide. That’s like 500 million people dead, in barely three weeks. It’s the largest public health crisis ever. Putrid, stinking corpses stacked like cord wood. I don’t think the world has enough lime.

But that’s the easy way out. And for all my screw-ups in life, nobody has ever accused me of taking the easy way.

The first headlines were the worst. I mean, can you imagine sitting in the editorial staff room at a major newspaper, like New York Times, or Le Monde, and discussing, how do we announce the end of the world, without inciting panic and pandemonium?

Well, the short answer is: You don’t. And in this day and age, you simply don’t have the time to debate. So articles went out on line, instantaneously, with headlines like: ANNIHILATION!!, EXTINCTION!!, DESTRUCTION!! Well, at least they got the exclamation points right.

I mean, the message is accurate enough. But still, have a little compassion, will ya? You just told the whole world it has cancer, and that its end of days can be measured with the accuracy of an atomic clock.

Of course, I downloaded the Countdown Clock app. 742:18:32:06.72 at last check. “Tuesday” doesn’t mean much anymore. Nor the month or year. When someone asks what day it is? The correct answer: “742.”

Rumors are flying about secret moon bases. About impromptu deep space missions to “save the species,” looking for a new homeworld. There is talk of the 144,000, and I’m wondering how many can fit in a spaceship, or how does one be selected amongst the chosen few?

Of course, the religious nuts are all about the Rapture. It must not have happened yet, because they’re all still here, everywhere, spouting their doctrines.

Everyone’s got a theory. Some say the Rapture will happen moments before the Big Hit. (That’s probably to save them from last minute ridicule, in case their fiery chariot is late in arrival.) Others have established a more reasonable timeline, like the Sunday prior to the end. Which makes sense, I guess, in a religiomatic sort of way. But me, I have my doubts.

I figure the Rapture’s already happened, and it was probably just those two little twin girls who disappeared in Des Moines last summer. The rest of us are here for the duration. They were only eight years old, and cute as a bug’s ear. The preacher, who everyone now says is a murderer and child rapist, was alone with the girls in a barn. He says they were there one second, and gone the next. To me, that must have been God’s way of saving those two innocent souls from a fate worse than death. They spent two weeks dragging the riverbottom, where the preacher says he baptized the girls moments before. Everytime I hear that story, I get the overwhelming feeling that God Raptured those two small children right out from that barn. At least I hope He did.

So the world is an effed up place. Some say the comet is God’s righteous judgment upon the Earth. Like the flood of Noah. All I know for sure is when that comet strikes, it’s going to be like 65 million years ago, only about a billion times worse. No one is going to survive. The Earth may no longer exist. This thing is a real planet killer.

Of course, I wonder about the official story. Primarily, I wonder about how long they’ve really known? They say that astronomers spotted this things only 2-3 days before the news became known. At first they were excited to discover a new comet. But as they observed it, as they measured its trajectory, it quickly became evident, this comet was unusual. Mostly unusual in that it was on a direct collision course with the Earth. As soon as that became fact, the next question was, is there any way of stopping it?

Changing course, deflection, destruction. All were considered, are still being considered. We humans don’t give up easily. That’s when the secret got too big to keep. Every resource was quickly tapped for ideas on how to avoid planetary destruction. And someone spilled the beans.

Of course, it was decided, there is no way to change the course of a comet. We could attempt to blast it out of the sky, but the inertial force is so great, that we would not accomplish much. And it’s still so far away, and traveling at such high velocity, we would only be able to meet the comet on its final approach, in the last sixty days. So, yeah, there’s time. And there’s always hope. Even when that hope is completely foolish.

This is the number one topic on the internet. Reddit has over 10,000 subs about the comet. The world’s smartest people are freely posting their work and ideas. Billions of people are following these posts, and millions have theories. Suddenly everyone is an expert in gravitational forces and trajectories. “Have you accounted for the gravitational effect of Saturn?” Yes. “Jupiter?” Yes. “The asteroid belt?” Yes, yes, yes, yes, … “My Dear Aunt Sally?” Reddit hasn’t changed.

Bottom line, there is no force known to man that can evade this fate. Running away from the planet seems the only viable course. But that’s only for a few. And where to go? Do we even have the means, the technology, for deep space travel? So many questions.

So I inject myself with sweet surrender. I’m not proud of it. But it’s a choice. And it’s my choice. All mine. Which is better than being snuffed out by a soulless unthinking unknowing giant space traveling ice ball.

Ironically, we just call it “the comet.” Little c, even. Comets are usually named for their discoverers. A little digging reveals this comet was discovered by one —– NASA scientist. It was first noted (according to the Wiki page) at 15:23 GMT, 6/9/23, from the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Island of Hawaii. But the NASA scientist remains unnamed. As does the comet. I guess nobody wants their name eternally associated with the death of an entire planet. Even though this is the greatest discovery of a lifetime.

Any space object directly headed toward the observer is difficult to detect. Movement is what we notice first. And when an object is heading straight towards you, movement is not what you see. Instead, you simply see something there that wasn’t there before. And as the Earth moves around the Sun, you get slightly different angles. This allows a confirmation of observations. And calculations of path of travel.

Interestingly, most comets are discovered by backyard astronomers. Amateurs. This is because there are many more thousands of amateur telescopes pointed at the night sky than there are dedicated professional observatories. And the sky is open and available for all to see. But the unique characteristics of this comet meant that it was far more likely to be discovered by professionals than amateurs, or not at all. You see, many objects — asteroids — heading straight towards the Earth, are not detected until the last minute. This comet is unusual in that way, also. It was somehow seen, and noted for what it is — a killer comet — 25 months before impact.

They say it didn’t take long to realize this was not only a new comet, but a planet killer. Maybe two nights of observation. Of course, once the alarm bells sounded, the comet has been under constant surveillance, from every observatory around the globe, and some space based.

Still, nobody claims credit. And the comet remains nameless.

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Ultratech Cares:  Chapter Two

Malik Trevor sat upon his precipice overlooking the city, sipping tea. This was his city. Not in any official way sanctioned by the politic of the day. Much deeper than that. At its root, in its heart. Yes, this city was his. It belonged to him, and he to it. 

His surroundings may not seem much to the ill-informed. His penthouse highrise apartment building might look to be just one more bombed out hulk of a former glass and concrete symbol of bourgeois excess, but in fact it was a fortress, secure both strategically and in its anonymity. 

Amidst the broken concrete and twisted rebar on the twenty-second floor Malik was at home. From here he had a good vantage. From here, he felt the pulse of his city. Ultratech may own the lungs. But Malik owned its heart. 

-//-

It was an odd kind of a rebellion. One could not fight the power head on. Ultratech was too powerful, too big. Its tentacles reached deep, into every part of the lives of those subject to its authority. 

For a long time, those being oppressed saw Ultratech as the giver of life. After all, did they not provide the very air we breathe? Malik’s war was necessarily a crafty one. He first had to change the people’s minds, to open their eyes to the truth. 

The truth was, the air used to be free. This was a hard concept to grasp. Clean air, good air, plentiful, and free. Before the air burned the lungs, before it poisoned the body. 

Before Ultratech destroyed the air with its polluting factories. Before the invention of the UBU. before it was necessary for every living human to be fitted with a prosthetic breathing device from birth, simply to allow them to survive. 

-//-

It was night. The street was dark, a lone figure barely noticeable against the facade of an office building. He was loaded with weapons, but there would be no loud sounds, no explosions. No one would die. No property would be destroyed this night. 

Only mildly defaced. And it wouldn’t last long. But long enough. Enough to be seen. Not by all, but by some. Not quite many, but a few. By enough. And they would talk. Talk was hard to stop, if not impossible. And they would think. Which was the very best kind of weapon. 

His message was subtle. He carried twenty-four posters. Each thirty by forty inches. He would paste them two high, twelve long, at street level. And the workers arriving early would notice. 

Within an hour it would be gone. No official acknowledgement that it ever had existed. There would be no manhunt for the culprit, as that would require an admission that someone had dared to defy them in the first place. 

No. No one ever stood up to Ultratech, and they would not, could not, allow themselves to think now that someone might challenge their authority. 

-//-

Sarah awoke at exactly ten minutes before six, as she did every workday morning. She showered as the coffee automatically brewed. She sipped black coffee as she dressed. By six twenty she was out the door for her ten minutes walk to work. 

She was focused on some mundane thought, about an issue at work. Something she would have preferred not to think about on her own time, as she considered every moment outside the office building to be her own time, but she was a diligent worker, and couldn’t help herself solving company problems on personal time. 

As she turned the corner, ready to enter work for her regular shift, at one minute before six thirty a.m., there she saw it. And once seen, it could not be unseen. In the coming weeks, the message would haunt her, being always just below the surface, and never very far away. 

She consciously wondered what it meant? But subconsciously, and maybe even in her active thoughts in those few moments just before sleep, she knew what it meant. She knew exactly.

An island, on a clear blue sea. With crisp sand beaches. Swaying palm trees. And a crystal sky. 

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Stories, Uncategorized

Ultratech Cares: a short story 

Jane was exhausted, breathing hard. Her oxygen intake was down to 50% – still within survivable parameters, but far from optimum. If she dropped below 30% she would die. Her filters were worn. Recycled and rebuilt, not like the pristine filters distributed monthly in New City. But then this wasn’t New City. These were castoffs, the best filters Jane could afford. And they hadn’t been serviced in the entire nine months of her pregnancy.

Jim. Jimmy. James. He was beautiful. Five pounds four ounces. Healthy by Low Town standards. She would hold Jimmy for the first time in less than five minutes. As soon as the doctors finished fitting the newborn with his Ultratech Breathing Unit. Without the UBU, Jimmy would suffocate and die within minutes. A healthy adult could live without a UBU for up to thirty minutes. Jane didn’t want to find out how long a baby could last.

Jane had been saving for the past nine months. Every penny. To buy little James brand new filters. She couldn’t work the past month of her pregnancy. Too weak. So she fell a little short. Still, she had found Jimmy some pretty good used filters. She was proud of the good start she had been able to provide for her son.

UBU’s were mandatory. Everybody got one. Of course, they weren’t free. But at least you didn’t have to pay up front. They cost thousands. Born into debt. Just like everyone else. Welcome to the world, little Jimmy. Welcome to the world.

And then there was the monthly usage fee. You paid for every litre of oxygen breathed. Exercise, and even physical labor, was a luxury most could not afford. Ultratech owned the air. Their factories polluted and destroyed the air, and their invention, the UBU, made it possible to suck the last of the oxygen from the air. So everyone owed their lives to Ultratech. And most people, in the end, owed their deaths to them as well.

-///-

Jimmy was beautiful. Jane loved watching him grow. Within a few months, the boy was over ten pounds. Thriving. All the women said he was a strong one, he would survive.

Jane breastfed her son. This she did in secret, because it was illegal. By law, all children were required to be nourished with High Quality Infant Formula. But Jane could barely afford a half ration. And besides, she had read in a book as a young child that breastfeeding resulted in healthy strong and vibrant children. Jane wanted Jimmy to be vibrant, whatever that meant, and so she secretly breastfed her young son.

-///-

A year later Jimmy was walking. He also was starting to speak a few words. This was very unusual, since most children who survived were not able to walk until well after their first birthday, sometimes as late as 22-24 months. Jimmy was bigger and stronger than the rest. And it did not go unnoticed.

Jane worked in an office. She sat before a computer screen, looking at numbers and pressing buttons. While Jane worked, Jimmy played in the Children’s Day Care Center on the other side of the building. Jane would drop off Jimmy before work, and pick him up at the end of her shift. Sometimes, if the boss wasn’t looking, Jane would quickly walk the length of the hall during her mid day lunch break, and check in on Jimmy. Such was frowned upon, but Susie, who looked after the children, was kind. And she did not report Jane for this small indiscretion.

It was a few days after Jimmy’s first birthday. Jane was feeling her motherhood, and just had to check in on her son that day. The sign next to the entrance read Ultratech Cares. Jane quickly passed the sign without noticing it – she had seen it a thousand times.

As soon as Jane arrived, Susie noticed her and quickly came to her side. In hushed tones, Susie urgently informed Jane there was a problem with Jimmy.

Jane whispered back with great concern, “What kind of problem?”

Susie: “He is a bad influence on the other children.”

Jane: “Jimmy is such a good boy. What do you mean?”

Susie: “He is being wasteful with resources. We can’t afford to be wasteful, you know.”

Jane: “Wasteful how? What resources?”

Susie: “I didn’t want to say anything, but he was running.”

Jane: “Running! Really? He’s so young! How is that wasteful?”

Susie: “Really now. We can’t very well have the children running. They will overuse their oxygen, and then their parents will blame me when the bill comes at the end of the month, and they can’t afford to pay it!”

Jane left the child center and headed back to work, not having seen her son, thinking about what Susie had said about Jimmy being wasteful.

-///-

Another year went by. And then another. Jimmy was always bigger and stronger than the other children. More healthy. He ran. He played. He was physical. Every month Jane cringed at opening the Ultratech bill. Some months it was just more than she could pay. She fell more and more behind on the bills.

Jane would talk to Jimmy about it. She would try to explain that he must conserve his air, not overuse it. That he was costing Mommy money, and putting both their lives in jeopardy. One day Ultratech’s patience might wear out, and their air supply might be suddenly cut off!

“I remember when I was a little girl, this family, very poor, with seven children. They just could not afford to pay their bills. One day, Ultratech cut them off. All of them. The next day the vans were out. Picking up bodies. Do you want that to happen to us?” Jane felt bad placing this burden on a little boy, but she was frustrated. And the story was true.

Jimmy said, “No Mommy, I don’t want you to die. I won’t run anymore.”

And for nearly two weeks, Jimmy was careful to walk everywhere. But then he began to forget. He ran once, then twice, and by the end of a month, he was running everywhere again.

-///-

Jimmy was seven years old. Jane was nearly thirty. Jane’s work involved customer services for Ultratech. She watched numbers. The numbers fell into three categories – green, yellow, and red. It seemed only New City had green numbers. Green was good. Everywhere else were yellow numbers. All of Low Town seemed to be yellow. Then there were the red. Red was rare.

If a customer was red three times in a row, Jane was to hit the black button. She had only had to use the black button three times in all the years she had worked at Ultratech.

On a Tuesday, Jane saw this one account, with two users, that was red three times in a row.

Jane didn’t want to hit the black button. She wasn’t sure what happened when the black button was pressed, but it gave her an uneasy feeling. So Jane decided to go for a walk first. It was nearly break time anyway.

Jane thought of her son. He was so smart, so beautiful, so healthy. She wondered what he was doing right now, in school. The school was over a mile away from her office building. Too far to walk during the workday, even at lunchtime. Jane loved Jimmy so much. She was just sure he would grow up to be someone special.

When Jane returned from her break, she had forgotten about the three reds. When she reviewed the account again, she sighed. And pressed the black button.

-///-

Jimmy immediately felt something different. He was running, playing. His UBU had stopped. At first he wasn’t sure. Then he was. He remembered what his Mother had told him about the UBU – if it stops working, you have 30 minutes to live.

Rather than go to the nurse’s station, to the teacher, or to the office, to see if someone could repair his UBU, Jimmy’s first and only thought was, I need to get to Mother!

So he took off running, away from school, and toward the Ultratech office.

-///-

Jane was dying. She knew it. All she wanted was to get to her son. He was her life. She feared that since her UBU had quit, maybe his had as well. She knew she was months behind on the bills. And maybe, just maybe, Ultratech’s patience had finally wore out.

She headed for the hall. But with no oxygen, she didn’t have strength to go far, and collapsed near the door to her office.

-///-

Jimmy ran as fast as he could. He arrived at Ultratech barely ten minutes after his UBU went out. He ran down the hallway to his Mother’s office. As he neared the doorway, he noticed someone slumped in the hall.

He didn’t think it was Mother, but Jimmy stopped to help. He was shocked to find it was his Mom!

“Mom what’s wrong! Are you ok?”

Jane opened her eyes. She was confused to see her son staring into her face.

“Yes dear, Mommy’s fine. I’m just resting. I feel a little tired. How is my precious Boy?”

“Mommy my UBU stopped working! I’m scared. I don’t want to die!”

“Don’t worry baby. Just sit here with me. We’ll be ok together.”

So Jimmy hugged his Mom and together they sat and waited to die.

-///-

“I don’t understand it.”

“Makes no sense.”

“It’s a miracle!”

“Doctor, report.”

“The woman deceased in twenty-seven minutes. It’s the boy we can’t explain.”

“Tell me what you know.”

“We received a report of terminated UBU service at 10:48 am. The boy, age seven, was at school, 1.3 miles away. He apparently ran the entire distance, arriving at 10:57. Our response team arrived at 11:02, found the two of them huddled in the hallway, talking and laughing and praying. Our team waited, held back awaiting termination, prepared for extraction. The woman termed at 11:15. The team expected the boy soon to follow. They waited to move in. Thirty minutes, an hour. At ninety minutes they called me. At two hours we extracted the woman.”

“And the boy?”

“He lives.”

“I know that! That’s why I came. Why does he live? How?”

“No UBU. It’s been four days, Sir. I’m sorry, we just don’t know.”

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Stories, Uncategorized

MYSTERY AT ROOK’S CORNER: A story of Chess and Redemption


Chapter 1

Many people look at me and envy my life. But let me tell you.

My life is a mess.

I mean, beyond the fact of the failed marriages and broken homes I have created for my children. That’s the obvious part.

I am a lawyer. I have three children. I have two ex-wives. One who hates me, one with whom I am still friends. I date beautiful tall Russian models. I drive nice cars. I have a stylish “estate” including sixteen acres of wild land and a largish house in Granite Bay.

I love my kids. They are all three smart and beautiful. My two older children lived with me through my divorce with their mother. And through my courtship, marriage, and ultimate divorce from my second wife. During that time, we also got their little brother, during my second marriage. My two older children lived with me through all of that. And then on into my current string of short-lived intense relationships with the models.

Until my children had had enough, and insisted on moving out and living with their mother. Did I tell you my kids are smart?

My little one, he’s always stayed with his own mom. Whether she and I were together or not, those two are inseparable. A good way to be.

But this story isn’t about my kids, although I could tell you about them all day long. This story is instead about their dumbass Dad. This story is about how I screw up my life.

Like I said, I’m a lawyer. Mostly I handle real estate and construction cases. I have some experience in both fields. I worked construction as a kid, and all the way through law school. My Dad was a contractor, as well as both my Grandfathers. My Mom was a real estate broker, not when I was a kid, but later. And I’ve been involved in numerous ventures into property development over the years, dating all the way back to my late teens and early twenties, with varying degrees of success.

The things I like to do, other than to date hot Russian models, are to play chess, do the NYTimes crossword puzzle, read books, and drink coffee. I might sometimes have a beer, but I stopped drinking a few years ago, and it’s probably not a year, but most of a year, since I last had a beer with some Thai food at dinner.

I do not do drugs, I don’t like drugs. I am a non-smoker, but I will light your cigarette if you have nice legs and a pretty smile.

I like to think I am a pretty normal guy. A normal guy who’s been divorced twice, works out a couple times a week (or sometimes once a month) at the gym, is a lawyer, and who dates girls most guys only dream of. Get the picture?

I do my best work at the bookstore. My favorite place to hang out in the whole world is the bookstore. I can sit there in a comfy chair, with my coffee and a sweet roll on a little table to my right, a book on my knee, the NYTimes crossword on the left armrest (unless it is early in the week, and I’ve already finished the X-word before my first cup of coffee is gone), and my Smartphone on the right armrest. To me, this is like home.

Clients can email or text me on my Smartphone. I won’t pick up if they call, but let it go to voicemail. Well, almost always. Unless I need something from them right away, and then I might pick up. But I hate talking on the phone. First, people always talk too long. Why can’t they just get to the point and then shut up and hang up? They always want to “talk it out,” and frankly I don’t have the time or the inclination to listen or to care. Second, I am a notoriously bad note-taker. So if we’re talking, I’ll just end up forgetting half of what you’ve said. Six months later, when it finally becomes vital for me to remember what you said, if it is not written down, not in my case notes, I won’t review it for the meeting, or the hearing, and it might get lost in translation. So don’t tell me anything important unless you watch me write it down. Always put it in writing.

And third, I’m in the bookstore! I mean it’s not exactly a Library, but close enough. I don’t really want to talk at all. So text me. Or email.

A word about voicemail. I hate it. Usually I won’t even listen to it. I’ll just erase your message. Yeah, you called. And blah, blah, something important, blah, blah. Spare me. I don’t have time. I know you called, and if I get around to it, I’ll call you back. But probably not. Ten to one, you leave a VM, I’ll never call you back. Maybe I’m busy. Maybe I don’t really care. Maybe it’s my retribution for you leaving me a VM in the first place, which I really hate.

Unless I really want something from you, I won’t return your VM. I won’t call you back. So stop wasting my time. And yours.

If you want my attention, use email. Now we have a written record. I can’t evade it or avoid it. There’s a permanent record. Now your odds are reversed, tremendously improved. If you email me, ten to one I will respond, and usually right away.

Or better yet, if you want or need my attention immediately, text me. Unless I am actively avoiding you (ex-girlfriend, annoying client, probably already left ten voicemails), I respond quickly to a text. But I hate long text conversations almost as much as I don’t like VM or talking on the phone.

They usually seem to end up in a misunderstanding of some sort, important or not. To me the length of a texting exchange seems to be directly proportional to the probability that the meaning will become somehow garbled. So when you text me, keep it short.

If you are beginning to think I have a lot of rules in my life, I do. Mostly unpublished. My kids, my dog, my ex-wives, my various girlfriends (if she happens to last more than a week or two) all have become accustomed to my rules. Such as, I don’t like repeating myself. If I’ve told you, I’ve told you. I am a pretty good teacher, so I will present a new lesson two or three times before I get short and start to think maybe you are mentally challenged. But very soon after that, I become impatient with repeating myself, and let my frustration show.

People around me tend to be pretty sharp, pretty quick. This is because people who are slow or dim don’t last very long around me. If they just don’t get it, I either distance myself from them, or chase them away with my sharp tongue. Not very Christian of me, I know.

And while I’m at it, I should probably explain. I have not always been Christian. Oh, I have always believed in Jesus Christ. I was raised in a Christian household, in a Christian faith. And I know Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, the life.” For a large chunk of my life, what I really believed was that Jesus is a way, a truth, and a light, rather than the way, the truth, the life. But I know better now. Now I know Jesus is the only name by which man might be saved and come unto the Father. But I was a long time in coming to this understanding.

So I’ve learned a lot of ways of living that are contrary to His ways. And old habits can be hard to break.

I practically run my law practice from my control room leisure chair in the bookstore. Like Captain Kirk. You could email to me your construction drama, attach electronic documents, or even fax them to my eFax inbox, and I’d sit right there in the bookstore, dream up a solution, perhaps research it on the web right from my smart phone, draft an email response, maybe a letter on my letterhead also saved on my Smartphone, and email you my solution to your legal problem. All while sipping my coffee, nibbling on my sweet roll, solving the crossword, and reading a book. Multi-tasking doesn’t begin to describe me. I’ve had five balls in the air, sometimes ten, and I was brilliant. My clients loved me. I could devise and execute solutions to their legal problems that hadn’t even occurred to anyone else. And usually in only a few minutes, all by email. So I was very sought after. This only fed my ego, pride and arrogance. Which also contributed greatly to my downfall.

I met Dennis at the bookstore. Specifically, the Borders over on Douglas Blvd. in Roseville. It’s closed now, because they filed BK. But this was a few years ago, back when I first moved to Granite Bay.

The funny thing is, Dennis isn’t a Roseville type of guy. He looks more like a Downtown kind of guy. Well, maybe even a little bit like a homeless bum, but maybe just a cut above that. Though not by much.

And the reason why that’s funny is because I lived Downtown for twenty years, even up until I became a lawyer. I began my practice Downtown, until I started making some money, and began my inexorable march to the suburbs, and then out past, almost to the country. Close to where I grew up, actually. But that’s way far off the current point.

The point is, Dennis didn’t fit. He stood out, and so I noticed him. He was reading some old book on Mayan culture, and another about Hindu mysticism. Dennis is kind of strange. I almost hate having a conversation with him, because he likes to argue, and will take any of six different positions, alternating free flow, like a Gatling gun, to defeat your one, sound argument. It was Saturday afternoon.

At Borders they have, or used to have, an open mike most Saturday evenings. Where bad poets and worse musicians make their friends cringe for five minutes apiece. If I have nowhere to be, sometimes I’ll still be there, reading a book, when the open mike starts. That’s my signal to move to the other side of the store, away from the coffee shop, and the noise. They always have a host, and then some local band as an anchor act. Like just in case nobody has a poem to read. And usually they’re some awful folk group. But once in awhile they might be pretty quirky and kind of cool. So then I’ll mosey back over and take a listen. I think it starts around seven.

I noticed Dennis sitting at a table in the coffee shop area. I always sit in the comfortable lounge chairs, but they also have these tables with two or four wooden chairs. And larger groups will move the tables together to make a bigger area for six, eight, ten. You get the picture; So Dennis is sitting at a table for four in the coffee shop area, all alone, with a chair on each of the four sides. And he has a chess set.

It’s not set up. It’s one of those with a roll-up vinyl chessboard, and all the pieces in a canvas bag with a drawstring. But I’ve been around enough to know. It’s a Chess set, and the man wouldn’t mind a game or two.

So I kind of invite myself, I just kind of nod at him, eye the set, and look back at him. As he’s setting aside his books, he says, “You want a game?” As he’s rolling out the board, and dumping the pieces out of the bag, I say, “Ok.” He asks, “You any good?” I say, “I guess we’re about to find out.” It’s like four, maybe four thirty in the afternoon.

We play for the next six hours, until they’re wiping the tables and telling us we don’t need to leave yet, but soon. Borders stays open until eleven on Saturday nights. Most nights they close at nine. It might be like ten on Friday, and they close early on Sundays. But I’m always in church on Sunday nights, so I can’t really say for sure what time.

Dennis is pretty good. I mean, he’s real good. He lets me win four or five in a row, and then, just to keep me honest, he lets loose and blows me out in back-to-back games. I have to try my best to just tie his shoes. But the people watching don’t know. They think I’m whooping up on this old man, taking mental advantage of him. Dennis is eating it up.

I am virtually silent when I play. Though I sometimes hum or sing. It helps me to think. We, Dennis and I, don’t use a chess clock, but we play at lightning speed. Games take only two or three minutes. One with a whole lot of thinking might take five minutes, tops. And Dennis is non-stop talking.

We soon gather an audience. Singles, twos and threes will walk up and watch us play and then wander off after a half dozen games or so. A couple times, someone sits down and watches for an hour or more. People walk away shaking their heads, amazed.

And the whole time, Dennis is keeping up a running commentary. He banters with the spectators. He gives a virtual play-by-play of the games; e.g. “Oh, see that!? He wants my Queen! You know, I might just let him have her. But not yet!”

He never tells me his name, not while we’re playing. And since I am a veritable mute, I never introduce myself either. And yet, we are communicating. Through our moves on the Chess board. We are even conspiring, engaged in a mental dance. We leave a false impression with those watching, that I am the superior player, and that Dennis is totally shocked and surprised each time he wins.

Though that’s not the truth, and is far from it. Because, in fact, only once or twice all night I catch Dennis when he’s pulling out the stops. But that once or twice feels nice. And we both know it when it happens. Although Dennis is a Master, maybe a Grandmaster, and me a bare beginner next to him (though I’ve been playing most of four decades), my one or two earned victories in about six hours, and maybe a hundred games, are enough to catch his attention, and to instantly win his respect.

But that’s not the important thing that happened that night. I mean, none of this story would have happened, or at least if it had, it would have been different and I wouldn’t have known about it nor been involved, had I not met Dennis. Although I might have met him still, a different time, if we hadn’t played chess that day. Because, as I later learned, it is Dennis’ normal routine to be sitting in that very bookstore coffee shop most Saturday afternoons between about four and six. And he always has his chess set with him, not really looking for a game, and not even hoping, but always available.

No, the important thing that happened, and I do blame Dennis for it, is I met Her that evening. And if Dennis and I hadn’t been playing chess, I probably would have been long gone before she started singing. And even if I were there, on the other side of the bookstore, in noise-avoidance mode, and wandered back over toward the coffee shop area to hear her better, it is unlikely she would have even noticed me, a face in the crowd.

But, I was playing chess. And Dennis was busy working, making me look like a genius. And she noticed me. And she sat down and watched us play. And she smiled. And she gave us a shout out, a few times, between songs. She said, one time, “Hey, you can watch the game and listen to us at the same time. But I think those guys playing chess are even better than we are. But, hopefully, we’re not too bad.” And then she sang. And her voice was enough to melt your heart.

And before she left, she slipped me her phone number. Her name was Chloe.

Now back to the important stuff. Dennis told me his name that night. As they were wiping up the tables, we put away the pieces, rolled up the board, and talked until they turned down the lights and kicked us out of Borders. I even overcame my muteness and told him my own name.

Dennis said he only comes out to Roseville on Saturdays. To see his brother. Usually he stopped by the bookstore around four, and then over to the rest home where his brother stays. He times it so he gets there after dinner, so he normally leaves the store about six. He brings his chess set, because his brother used to be a very good chess player – way better than Dennis – before the Alzheimer’s set in. But now he doesn’t even know Dennis. So Dennis goes over there, and they play chess. Sometimes his brother moves a Knight like a castle. Or a Pawn like a Queen. Or he makes erratic attacks. But Dennis just plays along. And his brother wins every game.

But, every once in a awhile, there’s that spark. And his brother will put together a brilliant attack. Once, a few months ago, it lasted for three whole games. He was back, if only for a moment. And then he faded again. That’s why Dennis goes, every week, for those few rare moments. Those short times when he has his brother back.

Normally, Dennis said, he haunts the North Sac area. Around Del Paso Heights, or Downtown. He said he does a little handyman work on a few rental properties, and it keeps him as busy as he wants to be. But his real dream is to open a little café “for chess-minded people… where you can get a sandwich or a cup of coffee… and maybe play a couple games as you wile away an hour or two in the afternoon.”

I said it sounds to me like a half-baked idea. “How many ‘Chess-minded people’ do you think there are in this world?” I asked him.

“More than you’d think,” he said.

“Well I don’t think such a business would do very well around Sacramento.”

Dennis just smiled. He said good night and left. I was mildly concerned his beat up little pick-up truck might not make it all the way back to North Sac. I was a little ashamed I hadn’t at least offered him $20.00 to buy some gas. I was hoping he didn’t run out of gas, or get stranded somewhere along the way. But hey, whatever, I could probably use that twenty bucks to get myself some Starbucks in the morning.

 

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