SciFi short stories Short Stories

Murder Most Fowl

An exercise in writing the first 100 words of a story.

In writing workshops, we are told that unsolicited stories end up in the “slush” pile and the average editor will give a work the first one hundred words before giving up on it if they are not intrigued enough to keep reading. In this workshop, we were urged to write about ‘the other’. Writing from a perspective other than your own. I assume the suggestion was for men to write women, women men, gays straights, and/or straights gays. I took the suggestion one step further:

 

Don Fillmore was an ill-tempered duck this morning even as his webbed feet luxuriated in the cool, morning dew of one of Central Park’s grassy fields. He hated murder.

“It’s a pretty fowl deed, huh detective?” the beat cop manning the police cordon said with a chuckle.

It never ceased to amaze Detective Fillmore how people managed to lose focus on what was important when confronted with an over-sized, hyper-intelligent Mallard duck.

“You think this is funny?” Don quacked as he turned and challenged the officer standing thirty feet behind him. When the man did not look chastened enough by this rebuke, Fillmore charged the beat cop, wings flapping, and took flight. He pulled up just short of the officer, battering him with his wings, before landing and said, “there’s nothing funny about a corpse, officer. Get out of my crime scene!”

SciFi short stories Short Stories

Reboot

REBOOT

 

     Given the fact that people cannot foresee all eventualities, nothing can be made fool-proof. There can never be, by the same logic, a set of rules that covers all situations. When confronted with these facts, humans resort to deploying other humans; reasoning, discretionary beings; to preside over issues of concern. And this is how Jephet Abramson ended up sitting in the desert in the southeastern quadrant of Impi-el under a neutralizing cloak.

            Long ago, before life-extending nano-technology and its subsequent need for humans to move out into the universe, people began saving their information. This form of immortality began with writing. The preservation of information was finite, however, and tenuous. Beyond the accidental destruction of information caused by the environment, and who did not learn of the history of burning books from the destruction of the library at Alexandria to the Bonfire of the Vanities in Florence to the great public fires of Germany and America in their troubling times of social dislocation? Since the advent of modern computing advancements in the mid-21st Century, however, recording and successfully keeping faithful information became a permanent resource for untainted historical knowledge. There were no more expunging of records, nor bottlenecks of information dissemination.

After years of practice and discipline, any human could have the computer implants set into their brains that would store humanity’s information and allow them access to it at will. An arduous process of receiving certification for implants had developed over time and was itself influenced and mandated by the process which all human advancement has known: trial and error. The history of episodic psychosis amongst the weak-willed who received Information Augmentor technology is one of the first things learned about by fourth years. A steady logic and an assured sense of self are ground into every potential human candidate, meaning all but the two lower quintiles of intelligence, from the time they undertake their educations.

     Taking up station on this gods-forsaken planet was a special privilege reserved for the likes of Jephet for the very reason that he had topped out on almost every test his fellow humans could devise to measure one’s aptitude. Jephet was a free-roaming trouble shooter for the Department of Information. What first began the inquiry that brought him to this desolate planet seemed fairly innocuous, a series of events that could barely be said to have any connection at all. The accidental drowning death of a professor on Distal IV, a break-in at the Meta-Lab on Winchon, a mid-level security analyst gone missing on a climb in Earth’s Himalaya range; these events went nearly unreported and almost without comment. Jephet found the news odd in the frequency with which they occurred in sequence to each other but had his curiosity aroused when the library at New Caledonia was destroyed from a solar panel fire and the subsequent Reclamation Center explosion.

            Too many connectable events too close together brought Jephet here. He sat at the mouth of a cave overlooking a hot, barren valley. Down on the valley floor sat a squat, rectangular building that looked more like a bunker. Around it stood the obligatory solar panels used for power production. Below that building, deep within the ground, dwelt one of the most important, least known archives in the whole of the human universe. Hundreds of feet below the surface sat a digital library with a near up-to-date history of humanity.

            The thought process that led Jephet to the mouth of this cave was something that he at first was incapable of accepting. His mind rebelled at the possibility that someone could conceive of such a plan. The mini data-wipe at the colony outpost of Theba is what set his mind into overdrive though. The colonists sent a request for a reboot of their mainframe to the Department of Information. Someone, it seemed a malicious hacker, had managed to sneak in a worm that sat dormant for long enough to assure that all the residents of the outpost had updated their computer chips. When the worm activated itself, it corrupted all memory stored in every human’s brain chip. Malicious, yes. Malicious but harmless, really. There was no way to prevent the corrupted data from being erased and everyone’s computer’s from being rebooted from the Theban central Data Store for all the members of the outpost. The worm had caused some trouble, to be sure, but it seemed more an inconvenience than anything else.

            Jephet found himself thinking on the event though and then he recalled that the professor on Distal IV had just died days before. That was two events on the same subject, Data Stores. The professor had been a main author of the programming used to transmit updates to the regional Data Store and the Data Clearinghouse’s on every planet’s, outpost’s and colony’s main computer systems. The fire was next; another Data Store event. Jephet’s mind raced with possibilities. His prime induction based on the data, human nature, and some imaginative hypotheticals was that someone was seeking to either wipe out data or install false data into the main cache libraries, the back-up Data Stores. This was a mind-boggling thought. Who could be so audacious, so far-seeing, to decide to alter the history of humanity?       

            The alteration must be something that people do not learn directly as a matter of course, it must be some other, foundational, knowledge that would impact and influence other understanding and knowledge or else people would realize that something had been changed when their actual knowledge did not match up with the background knowledge saved in their chips. To change foundational knowledge would have, could have, enormous affect, Jephet realized. All peoples’ brain chips ran off a synthesis of knowledge for prime induction theory. Induction is taking the particular and attempting to infer something about a larger class of knowledge. Given what we know, we can guess very accurately at unknowns. Deduction is taking the general and applying it to the particular. Deduction, when the larger area of knowledge is true, always yields facts that are true. Induction, on the other hand, is guess-work, educated guess-work. The brain chips that nearly three fifths of all humans have installed in their heads assist in inductive reasoning as well as information storage. A computer chip uploaded with more knowledge and history than any human could know ran off algorithms and processed questions and inquiries against an intricate tapestry of information nearly infinitely divided into multiple categories and classifications. When a person needed to make a decision, they were able to pose their quandary within the framework of an inductive question and have the computer in their head give them a number of prime inductive computations.

            Changing the framework of the inductive question allowed the individual to re-frame the parameters of the inquiry performed by their computer chip which in turn altered the type and category of the cross-referential data their chip used to achieve prime inductions. This was the sort of test Jephet had been so good at while being measured for a possible career at the Department of Information. It’s what got him here, on this deserted planet.

 

 

 

     The cave mouth in which he sat, was overhung by a large rock affording him cover and cool shade. The neutralizing cloak he had deployed was most likely unnecessary given the rock above him but Jephet had decided not to chance giving away his presence given the intelligence of his possible quarry. Anyone who could think as deeply as he suspected someone was doing if his theory was true would make damned sure that they were alone when they walked into that building down there to alter the Data Store. Besides, the overhanging rock would protect his life-signs from registering on a scan of the area from space or even from a craft in atmosphere but it would not protect him from a scan pointed up at the mountain the valley below. The neutralizing cloak did. It offered him a dome of protection four meters around cancelling out all bio-rhythmic vibrations as well as infra-red readings.

            No one was scheduled to be out here for an update for at more than 30 standards and there was only one colony on the planet, on the near exact opposite side. No one would show up here accidentally. Jephet induced this Data Store to be the next stop on the perpetrator’s journey given the pattern of travel for the events cited previously, the travel time needed to get to each Data Store, and the schedule for each Data Store’s update in the near future. There were five central Data Stores in the universe. At least there were five of which Jephet was aware. As precaution against any number of unforeseeable cataclysms, the Department of Information had built five similar caches in five dispersed areas of the galaxy. Each had its own unique features and each was used exclusively as a system for which all the known history of humanity could be stored. Rarely were these locations visited except to upload information. Each was built on a geologically stable planet and each was equipped with its own stand-alone power grid with triple default redundancies. Truly, the power was a non-essential component of the buildings as the systems were deep enough into the planet that the temperature in them was a constant and once the data was written into the computer’s memory system, there was no power needed to keep it secure. The power systems were important for the reason that power would be needed in the case that some event occurred that made it essential for someone to gain access to humanity’s history. Nobody alive would enjoy climbing down a three hundred foot ladder to gain access to the computer.

     Jephet had been living in this cave for almost a week standard waiting for his sensors to raise the alarm that he was not alone. To combat boredom, Jephet had been recalculating and re-aligning his search and inquiry algorithms trying to come up with new prime inductions for his problem here. There were a few inductions that could be reached with his hypotheticals other than that someone was bent on tampering with humanity’s history but they required torturing what he knew of human nature in his propositions and adding a fair number of events from recent history that he would be loathe to include as relevant. If he did not add his hypotheticals into the events he’d noted, nothing untoward was going on. In that case, he would waste a week or so sitting in a cave in the desert. But this was his life.

Other than this, Jephet spent his time in the history books of his mind searching through the raw data that informed his chip’s decision-making processes and playing games against his computer. Relaxing back onto the cool ground, this is what Jephet chose to do now. Closing his eyes, he opened the file for Pungiball. The computer cast upon his mind’s eye the arena, the nets, and the players illuminated in their opposing colors. Jephet chose blue, precipitating the computer’s need to open the game with an offensive move. Jephet always liked watching the opening salvo of his opponent in Pungiball because he felt it gave him an advantage in seeing his opponent’s mindset in the way he spread out his players and moved them down the field. Pungiball was a game of counter-moves where you relied upon your opponent’s momentum and form of attack to inform your course of action, much like the ancient martial arts of Judo and Aikido. His computer was a very good opponent, sometimes even winning a game, but it lacked the spontaneity and improvisation required in such a free-flowing game involving an open field and multiple players as Pungiball. Just as he relaxed into the game and began to feel the flow of it, his alarm sounded.

     Jephet opened his eyes and rolled over onto his stomach. Grabbing the scanner to his left, he raised it to his eyes and focused out onto the plain below. Just then, a craft darted into view, slowed, and touched down near the desert bunker. Unbelievable, he thought. A man exited the craft and proceeded directly to the Data Store building. Not very cautious, he noted, he must have no inkling I am on to him. The man was not bothering to scan his surroundings nor set up a dampening field for his ship.

Nice vessel though. The ship was a T1-11. A high-end interstellar model capable of wormhole jumps with white hole re-entry, and electro-magnetic stabilizers to make the ride out of a star less violent than usual. The vehicle spoke of a good deal of money. Either the man in the valley was wealthy or he worked for wealthy people. Twenty more meters, and I will find out which, Jephet thought.

     As the man closed the distance, unaware of his impending capture, again Jephet wondered what someone could hope to tamper with that would alter peoples’ decision-making paradigms. Finding the five Data Stores was a feat in and of itself. Erasing or corrupting peoples’ memory files was, also, an enormous undertaking. These things, taken individually, had caused Jephet distress. These things, alone, were worthy of high levels of attention within the Department of Information. But what Jephet had found more worrisome was the induction that these two prospects could only be informing, could only be ancillary to, a greater goal. Someone had figured a way, or at least was confident that they had figured a way, to alter archived history in a way that would change the decision-making paradigms of everyone’s brain chips. Not only that, they thought that this change was to their advantage. The scope of what that change was, and how it could benefit someone, and who that someone might be, chilled Jephet to the core on that hot mountainside on Impi-el. This was not the first time he had settled into that utter stillness of fear while thinking on this subject.           

            The reason that this subject, this inquiry, was not a matter of attention at the highest levels of the Department of Information was because Jephet had also induced from his multiple analyses that there was a high probability of someone within the Department acting in this plan. The break-in at the Meta-Lab on Winchon, for instance, could be overlooked as newsworthy except that this was the lab that stored all the iterations of brain chip algorithms and their programming software. Not many people knew about this. The researcher who had gone missing on Earth, also not too noteworthy, was a mid-level analyst. But that mid-level analyst was hiding in plain sight and was, in actuality, a Data Store updater. This was also something not widely known. The professor, everyone knew, had programmed the Data Store systems but that publicity could not be helped if someone needed to get his information.

            There were many members of the Department of Information running around the galaxy looking for what these incidences meant and trying to understand if there were connections, Jephet had no doubt, but he was the only one camped out on this lonely rock and the only one who just activated a neuralizer field around the building that just rendered his suspect unconscious. Now for some answers, he thought as he climbed out of his hide and began clambering down the mountainside.

Short Stories

Checking Out

Checking Out

 

“How much longer now?” she asked.

I looked down at my watch, “Not much, I think.”

“Do you ever find it sad? The Fall, I mean?”

“I do,” I admitted.

“The fecundity?” she inquired. “Wait, no. I hate this misremembering; the opposite of fecundity. Falls always make me feel sad. Too many things waning at once.”

“I guess that’s it,” I agreed. I put my hand on the park bench between us. She lay her right hand in my left and grasped it, her half-gloves allowing me to touch only her cold finger tips.

She looked around at the thinning canopy above us, leaves abandoning their high perches to continue their existence among the rest of the fallen. It was colder than usual for mid-October and she had bundled up. The gloves matched her beret and over-sized muffler which was wrapped twice around her neck and stuffed into her coat. A gift I had purchased four winters ago.

A cold wind was howling up forty-second street from the Hudson, through the glass and steel and concrete canyons, spinning off into dervishes wherever it found an opening. This morning, we were seated in one such opening, facing the hawk wind. She had wanted to come to this park, her favorite, on this gloriously drab morning. Bryant park is where she had learned her life. Reading, listening, smelling; watching the people all around her. During the first year she’d been allowed to come here alone, her fourteen year old self was absorbed into the soil of Tara right here on one of these benches. She’d sweated under the same summer sun with Paul on Arrakis and been frightened in the gloaming of Salem’s Lot.

We met here when she was making her rounds with Breakfast of Champions. I chose a bench across from her and paid more attention to her than the copy of Hot Water Music I’d checked out until working up my nerve, offering to buy her a hot cocoa at the cafe. Hot cocoa in the summer. I smile now at how suave I was.

“What are you doing later?” she asked, her wane smile curling up just enough to reveal those famous dimples.

I considered the question for a moment, gripped her hand, “I think I’m going to be bogged down in bureaucratic paperwork and making phone calls.”

Her eyes were glassy and I couldn’t tell if it was from the cold wind. “You really need to find something better to do with your free time.” Her words came as whimsy on a breeze. “If I were you, I’d check out that new book by Olen Steinhauer. Lindsey said it was very well written.”

“She didn’t qualify it?” I said with a wry grin.

A low laugh escaped her. “No. She didn’t add, ‘for a spy novel’.”

“You think she’s lightening up?” I asked hopefully. We’d often wondered from where she’d gotten her pretentiousness.

“Getting older changes people in certain respects,” she said. “Maybe she’s unpuckered her butt enough to admit that good writing is just good writing, no matter the genre.”

“That would be a change for the better,” I agreed.

Her tone changing to serious for a moment, she said,“You’ll need to be nicer to her, at least in the short term.” Lightening up again, she finished, “She’ll need you, whether she likes it or not.”

I asked, “And what about me? Will I need her?”

She released my hand and gave my knee a push, “Her? No. You’ll be fine here,” she said hooking her thumb over her shoulder at the public library. “You’re adjusted enough. ‘For everything there is a season,’ and so on. You know how this dance goes.” She smiled wanly again.

A chill ran up the back of my neck and my body tightened in defense against the cold wind. Flipping the collar of my tweed jacket up in hopeful defense, I asked her, “Would you like a hot cocoa or maybe we can take a walk around the park one last time?”

She stomped her shoes on the cobble stones beneath her. “I can’t feel my feet,” she said looking down. “How about some cocoa, like when we met?”

A word caught in my throat as she looked at me. She saw my look but did not turn away. She held my gaze a long moment and then said, “What did you check out that first day we met?”

“Bukowski,” I said almost automatically, “Hot Water Music.”

“That one really defined him,” she said.

I nodded in agreement. “He was an exquisite mess.”

To this, she nodded in reply, then, “For some people, when it takes them longer to find their voice, its stronger. For him, it was unshakeable. The pain of looking for it seemed to infuse his voice with such clarity and originality.” Her voice had taken on a dreamy quality now. “What was I reading that first day?”

“Vonnegut,” I said. “Breakfast of Champions.”

As if this were a surprise to her, she exclaimed, “Awwww… Poor old Dwayne Hoover, can’t tell fact from fiction. I love that novel.” Then she sat up straighter, “And here we are, ‘on a planet which is dying fast.” Then she added, “I can’t feel my feet,” as if for the first time, “can you get me a hot cocoa like when we first met?”

I tried smiling but it and my chin began to quiver so I gave up on the attempt and instead inhaled deeply as I stood, widening my eyes to prevent the tears from coming. “Of course,” I replied. “With a splash of milk and marshmallows?”

“Of course,” she repeated in a mock baritone. Then she held out her hand. Upon my grasping hers with mine, she said, “You were always my favorite, know that.” Her green eyes twinkled in a promise of mischief as the hint of a smile graced her face again, “I love you.”

I gave her hand a squeeze and managed, “I’ll be right back,” and, “I love you,” before turning toward the cafe.

The line was short and I was on my way back to the bench within minutes. Approaching her from behind, I could tell. Her head lolled to the right, as if I was still seated next to her and she’d decided to nap on my shoulder. I felt the paper cup in my hand lose its structural integrity before I noticed the grip I had on it. As I slackened my grip on the cup, my knees followed suit and I barely made it back to the bench before collapsing next to her. My weight shook the bench causing her head to roll forward onto her chin.

As I raised her head, I noticed that her clear green eyes that a moment ago held the flicker of mischief were already glazing over with a milky whiteness. The pain squatting on my heart rose and knotted painfully below my Adam’s apple. Silver slivers stabbed the inside of my forehead as I held back the tears and my nose began to run. Placing my arm around her, I lay her head on my shoulder and reached in my pocket for my cell phone and dialed 911.

Suicide is a crime and the police would be dispatched. Her note, outlining her intentions and motivations, was in her purse as was the bottle of pills she’d used. Lindsey was my next call after hanging up on the 911 operator. She would not approve, pretensions be damned, of her mother choosing an aristocrat’s death. But she was. An aristocrat.

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