#STLwrites

 

We came here often as children, to spend lazy summer days under the filtered shade of the trees. Sometimes we’d bring a pole, though we rarely caught anything.

“Fishing’s not about catching fish,” he told me when we were older. “It’s more about a state of mind.”

He had that right. We were always at peace by this water.

Like the river, time rolls on. Currents eat at the banks, undermining ancient willows. Nothing, it seems, lasts. Brown hair becomes gray. Gray hair falls out, taken by the chemicals which kept him alive.

“I’d like to see my grandchild,” he told me at Christmas. But some things just won’t wait for time or money.

“I’ll bring him here,” I whisper.

Ashes float on water.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

The fleet slowed to sub-light speed in the shadow of the moon, all indications their approach had gone completely unnoticed.

“Command-dak Ahnmoshgnagrif, all ships reporting, ready and in position,” Comms-head Ihurehriv informed him.

Command-dak Ahnmoshgnagrif rose on his four legs to full height, swiveling his eye-stalks to take in every member of his helms-crew. All were poised and ready. His heart-sack thrummed with pride. He waved a forefoot toward the wall and the plasma display field flicked on.

“Open the Hypercom, that I may address the troops.”

“Hypercom open, Sir.”

The Command-dak turned toward the field so he could be seen by all.

“Attention all ships. Attention all hands. In a few moments we will deploy in the Ter Rhan Gu attack formation. We will be detected upon deployment, but our adversaries will have no time to react. Today the glory and honor of the Jhungrhuani will be restored. You will live forever in the heart-sacks of our people. Never again will the Jhungrhuani be insulted by these pretentious little bastards.”

The audacity of these puny Humans – downgrading Jhungrhu to planetoid status. Never mind that they couldn’t even get the name right. They’d get a downgrade, alright, to the newest asteroid belt in the solar system.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

It felt unreal, flat on her back, florescent fixtures floating by overhead one after another. Mag glanced to her right where her mother, Alice, marched in silent disapproval, her lips held thin and tight. She glared straight ahead. For relief, both for her sore back and for emotional comfort, she turned to the left where her doula, Caroline, walked while holding Mag’s hand. When she saw Mag look up Caroline gave her hand a slight squeeze.

“You’ll be fine,” Caroline mouthed.

The gurney stopped abruptly and one of the nurses ushered Alice and Caroline through a side door – the scrub room. The baby was three weeks early and Doctor Makely did not want the other women in the delivery room. Caroline had successfully argued him out of that position, securing spots for herself and Alice. It would be c-section. That fight Caroline had lost.

Mag’s mother had made it abundantly clear she did not think it wise to have this baby. It would ruin her life.

“Who’s going to hire someone like you?” – meaning a thirties-something overweight unwed mother.

“Mom, I already have a good job…” Not a great job, but secure – an agricultural loan specialist at the Department of Agriculture.

“But what about your chances of promotion? A baby will tie you down.” Never mind for the last ten years a week never went by that her mother hadn’t asked when she was going to get married and produce some grandchildren.

The lead nurse leaned to the side and hit the big door-mounted button. The panic doors to the delivery room swooshed open.

“Don’t worry,” the other nurse, the one near her head, assured. “Doctor Makely has done thousands of c-sections.”

Mag offered up a weak smile.

“Hello, Maggie.” Doctor Makely appeared at her side, gloved hands held aloft out of contact with anything. “We’re going to give you a regional anesthesia, so you can remain awake. This is Doctor Chandra. He’s your anesthesiologist.”

Another man stepped over. The thin dark face behind the mask had friendly brown eyes. “We will be using a combined spinal epidural today.” His sentence ended in an upward lilt, making it sound like a question. “It works very quickly. I assure you, you will not feel any pain, but will remain fully awake and will be able to hold your baby.” This too sounded like a question.

A spike of pain interrupted Mag’s return smile.

“We will start that right away.”

Mag’s mother and Caroline came in just as two nurses finished transferring her from the gurney to the delivery table.

“You sit right here,” Doctor Makely told Alice, pointing to a stool near the head of the table. “If you get up you’re out of here. If you feel faint, let the nurses know and they will get you out of here.”

Alice sat as ordered, grim faced.

“Who’s the father?” The phone call home had been grueling. Mag knew her mom would not be happy that she had managed to get pregnant. She felt so stupid, but it had all happened so fast, and she had been so happy. At last, the perfect guy. Only weeks later she found out he was married.

“His name is Bob. He works for the State Department.” They had met at Finnigan’s Bar and Grill. She had gone with some friends after work. He kept making eyes at her all evening, then at last came over and introduced himself. Oh, Bob had been smooth. Real smooth. Bastard.

“So why don’t you get married?”

“He’s married mom.” The silence on the end of the phone was like eternal damnation.

Caroline settled near the head of the table opposite her mother. Two nurses positioned screening over Mag’s diaphragm.

“Are those really necessary?” Caroline objected.

Doctor Makely glared at her and shot a glance at Alice. Caroline understood the silent message. He wasn’t going to take a chance on a civy fainting dead away in the middle of his c-section.

Caroline began massaging Mag’s shoulders as the medical crew settled into their routine.

When Alice found out Bob was not only married but black she had a fit. “This baby is a big mistake, sweetie. It will be too much for you, for it, to go through life… It will be hard. On you. On it.”

“Her.”

“What?”

“It’s a girl.”

“Yes, dear, but think of the hardships she’ll face… no father.”

Her mother’s reaction made her angry. She had never been like that. When the time came Mag tried to dissuade Alice from flying out to DC, but her mother had insisted.

“You’ll need me there,” her mother told her.

“I have a doula.” Of course Alice had pooh-poohed that.

It was a very odd sensation. She was fully awake, yet only vaguely aware of the activity occurring behind the screens. Not that she felt nothing – just what she felt did not feel as if it was connected to her in any way. Gross movements. Shifting of weight.

A tiny squall came from behind the screen. Doctor Makely stepped to the side and held the baby up in both hands for Mag to see, the skin at the sides of his eyes crinkled from the smile behind his mask.

“A healthy baby girl,” he announced before handing the infant off to a nurse. Mag held her arms out, but the nurse turned away to place the baby on the weighing table.

“Soon,” Caroline assured her. “They have to clean her up first.”

Then the nurse came back, Mag’s newborn baby girl already swaddled and wearing a cap. “She’s beautiful,” the nurse said as Mag cradled her in her arms.

Alice leaned in from the other side, reached out, and put her pinky in the palm of the child.

Mag glanced at her mother. Her mother’s face was alight with joy.

“She’s so tiny,” Alice cooed.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

I work for a rather enlightened company. It has a gym on site, complete with an Olympic sized swimming pool and a jacuzzi. It’s a nice fringe benny, considering the price fitness centers charge these days. And it’s a lot more convenient, being right on site and being open 24 hours a day.

I used to try and work out right after work. But the gym is pretty crowded then (it’s the most popular time according to the attendant). Plus I soon leaned that I really just wanted to go home at the end of the day and found it harder and harder to get up the energy to face the weights and treadmill after a hard day at the office. So I dropped it for a while.

A recent glance at the scale told me that dropping the gym was a mistake. So I decided to try working out before the start of the day instead. It was hard to force myself up at 5am, but I found a predawn workout much preferable to a late afternoon one. And as a side bonus the gym is virtually abandoned at 6am. It’s usually just me and the attendant.

It’s so abandoned, in fact, that sometimes it gets kind of creepy. Occasionally I seem to catch some movement out of the corner of my eye, but when I look, no one is there. There is the occasional odd noise too. The sound of a door closing. The isolated clank of metal as if someone just set down the weights.

It got really creepy last week. I was in the shower and I could swear that someone was out in the gym using the weight machines. I could definitely hear the rhythmic clank clank of someone pressing iron. But when I dressed and went back out into the gym to leave, no one was there. It was dead still. As I went through the anteroom I asked Charlie, the attendant, who else was in the gym. He shook his head. “Just you, bud.” I started to object, but then shrugged and went on to work.

The next day I could have sworn I saw the door to the women’s locker room closing just as I got there. I went to the men’s and changed out, but found no one in the gym when I came back out. As I was about to go on and start my routine I heard a distinct splash from the pool. It is on the other side of the pass-through locker rooms, so I went back the way I had come and stepped out on the deck to the pool.

No one was there. There was only the gentle lapping of the water in the side gutters. Very odd.

I don’t use the pool myself. I’m not a good swimmer, and would never dream of swimming alone. Since I’m usually the only one there in the early morning the pool is out of the question for me. In a way I was relieved that no one was swimming. I would have been sort of worried about them the whole time. Face it, swimming solo is dangerous.

But no one was there, so I went back to the gym for my work out. Just as I reentered the gym the door to the anteroom was closing and I smiled. So that was it. Charlie was trying to spook me, the nasty trickster.

“So, we got ghosts?” I jibbed on the way out.

He just grinned. ‘Gotcha!’, I thought.

On Thursday last I was just getting ready to strip for my shower when I heard a splash out in the pool again. This time I was closer and there could be no doubt. I quit unlacing my sneakers and dashed to the pool entrance to catch the culprit red handed – or wet handed.

But there was no one there. “I’ll catch that bast…” Wait a minute. I took a few steps out onto the deck. Wet foot prints on concrete. Petite foot prints, like those of a woman. I glanced at the women’s locker room and scratched my head. Who the Hell was trying to spook me? I started to turn back to take my shower when I thought I saw something in the water. My heart jumped to my throat and I dashed down the side of the pool, yelling for help. There was a body in the water!

But as I drew near what I thought had been a body melted away into just some odd reflections from the overhead lights. I cringed and hoped Charlie had not heard my frantic cries for help. Damn, I was starting to scare myself!

As I gazed into the water someone gave me a shove from behind. I hurtled into the water in a panic. I was fully dressed, except for the left shoe, which came off and floated to the bottom. I’m a terrible swimmer in the first place and my wet clothes were dragging me down.

As I drifted towards the bottom of the pool I looked up and saw a woman standing poolside. I reached out, beseechingly, silently begging for help as I sucked water into my lungs. She dove in! She was going to save me. But as she approached I saw the bloated face of a dead woman. She grinned with lifeless eyes, her long hair twining around her face and shoulders. My vision went white then, and I blacked out.

The next thing I knew I was coughing up water and struggling under Charlie’s face. He dropped back and gave me room. He had indeed heard me cry out, but by the time he got there I was already in the water and flailing away. He had pulled me out with the dead-man’s pole and administered mouth-to-mouth, and just in time.

I’m told there was a woman that used do an early morning work out with the weights, and then do laps in the pool. She swam alone and drowned.

I still exercise in the mornings before work. I jog my neighborhood. You’ll never see me in a gym, any gym, ever again.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Shan Tzu sat in the shade of the building watching the coachman struggle to get the lead horse under control, the faintest smile played across his lips. Baggage sat half loaded – two trunks on top yet to be tied down, three on the ground yet to be hoisted aloft. One large case, made of fine teak, lay broken on the ground, expensive clothing spilled out into the grime of the street. The owner of the case, a portly man dressed in well cut linens, berated the footman who scrabbled in the dirt trying to gather up the contents as quickly as possible. The poor lad had dropped the heavy case when the lead horse unexpectedly spooked, jerking the coach wildly in its panic.

Ti Hoc came out of the station and stood next to his friend. “What? I thought we would be ready to go.”

Shan Tzu glanced up at Ti, an act which broke his concentration. The horse immediately calmed. The coachman patted the poor beast, still befuddled as to what could have gotten into the animal, and yelled at his boy to hop to it and finish with the baggage. Ti Hoc glanced down at Shan Tzu, suspicious, but said nothing.

Sufficiently amused Shan stood, stretched, and gave the poor footman a disdainful look. “Be careful with my case,” he admonished. “It’s the small black one, you clumsy oaf.” He looked at Ti, shrugged, and climbed into the cab. He was very glad to finally be leaving Xueshi Shang, where he had been forced to study his youth away. He would not miss it and looked forward to his return to Shulin Dong and his long anticipated reunion with his cousin Cao.

Shan Tzu settled into his seat contemplating that reunion. He should bring his cousin a gift to celebrate his return, something on the order of the parting gift he had given that twit, Quan Li. He glanced over at Ti Hoc, who settled just across from him. When the footman slammed the door behind the last passenger to board Shan Tzu sat back and laughed out loud.

~

Master Mo Shuh cocked his head, a worry line creasing his brow. Someone was running down the great hall, behavior strictly forbidden. He set down his pen just as the shouts started. A girl’s voice filled with panic – was that Li Na?

“Master Mo Shuh, Master Mo Shuh! Come quick!” He was in the act of standing when she burst into his office unbidden. “It’s Quan Li! Please, come quick!”

They ran to the girl’s dormitory together, Mo Shuh only able to get fragments of confusing explanation on the way. Something about a snake, and Quan Li bitten. Was there no end to the poor child’s misfortunes?

The room was crowded, anxious students gathered near the door, two groundsmen milled about, and three Rhetors attended Master Yi, who was bent over the prostrate and ashen form of Quan Li. Great dread overtook Mo Shuh as he approached the bed.

“What happened?” Mo Shuh asked of no one in particular.

A groundsman prodded the floor near the head of the bed with the tip of his spade, drawing Master Mo Shuh’s eye. A spotted pit viper lie there, dead – it’s head nearly severed. Mo Shuh knelt, but it was hopeless, not a glimmer of xin remained. There was no way to know who did this, for once the spirit was completely gone so too were all ties to the bindings that brought this serpent into the dormitory –for it surely had not entered unbidden.

Mo Shuh turned to his healing master.

“She lives,” Master Yi informed him without pausing in his ministrations. “It was a close thing.”

Li Na stood off from the bed, trembling, tears running down her cheeks. Quan Li was her roommate and best friend. Master Mo Shuh rose and wrapped Li Na in a comforting and grateful embrace. Her quick thinking, running for Master Yi while still sending groundsmen to deal with the snake, had probably saved Quan Li’s life. He turned toward the door and gestured dismissal to the gathering crowd. “You have readings to study. Go. Quan Li will be fine.” He only hoped it was so.

~

When Quan Li opened her eyes she found blind Master Yi sitting at her bedside. He sensed her state, and smiled.

“You gave us a scare,” he said, reaching out to stroke her forehead. “Good, the fever is gone.”

She glanced about, frightened and confused. Oh yes, this was the infirmary. She looked down to where her right hand lay wrapped and cradled on her stomach. Memories flooded back.

“I am afraid your two smallest fingers are ruined,” Master Yi told her. “I did all I could.”

She tried to lift her hand but could not.

“You are still very weak. Please do not exert yourself. If you are hungry I can send for some soup.”

Quan Li shook her head, then for the Master’s benefit whispered, “No.”

“Do you remember what happened?” He was asking her if she knew who had done this to her.

She closed her eyes and once again saw the brown speckled snake strike out at her hand as she turned down the sheet. There was a flash of the bindings guiding it – the sneering face of Shan Tzu. She would never see another snake without seeing him.

She simply turned her head away and eventually drifted back into troubled sleep.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

The entire lab gathered round the small TV watching Omar Suleiman make the announcement, listening in disbelief to the CNN translation. People drifted away from Anwar Mahrous, casting furtive glances at the Senior Researcher of the small bio-tech company. His face was inches from the tiny screen.

“Go!” Anwar startled at the grasp of a hand on his shoulder, jerked upright to meet the concerned gaze of his boss. It was still hours before quitting time. “We can cover for you,” Mr. Perez said. “Get home to Mariam.” Anwar did not hesitate. He rushed to drop his notes off at his desk, pulled on his coat, and headed out to the icy parking lot.

It was unbelievable. Mubarak actually gone. His heart was nearly rent apart in a tumult of emotions; sheer disbelief that the revolution had actually succeeded, the sudden heart swell of joy, yet overarching dread – eight days now since he’d heard from his daughter-in-law, Hala, in Cairo. Nine since he’d seen his son, Kamal, run down on CNN by club wielding baltagiya on horseback in Tahrir Square.

Phone calls to Kamal’s mobile went unanswered. Likewise, they could not get through to Hala. He and Mariam had never spent such a miserable night together, wandering around the house in a half dazed stupor, stopping occasionally to rage in front of the TV. He called in to the lab the next day and was told he could stay home. They sat together on the sofa flipping from channel to channel hoping against hope to see some sign of their son or daughter-in-law. Finally around two in the afternoon his mobile chirped. It was Hala on the other end, crying, trying to talk over a very bad connection. It took some time for them to realize they were sobs of joy – Kamal was out of surgery. Kamal was alive.

Yes, I am sorry …lost my phone. I borrowed this one. …alled as soon as…ew anything. I can’t hear you. Yes, I’m OK. I … to go now. I’ll call again.

But she did not call again. It was now eight long miserable days since they had heard anything. Now, Mubarak was out, and the joy in his heart struggled with the pain.

He found Mariam standing in the living room, watching the celebration unfold before the world. There was no joy on her face as she scrutinized the crowds for a sign, any sign at all, of her son or Hala. Anwar went to her and they held each other in desperate support. “Have you heard anything?” he asked. Tight lipped, tears welling at her eyes, she simply shook her head.

He jumped when his mobile chirped. He nearly dropped it in his frantic grab, did not recognize the number but answered, held it to his ear. At first all he could hear was chanting, singing, celebration. Again the connection was very bad. Then his heart leapt when he heard Kamal’s voice on the other end.

“It’s done!” Kamal shouted over the noise. “Egypt is free!”

“It’s Kamal!” Mariam suddenly hunched over, then sank onto the sofa, her face suddenly awash in relief and tears. Anwar came and sat beside her.

“Where have you been?” he shouted into his phone, hoping Kamal could hear.

“I just got out of hospital,” Kamal shouted back. He said something else but it could not be heard over the poor connection.

“Why didn’t you call?”

“We lost our… using Rami’s. I called… I could.”

“What happened to you?”

“Hit on the head. Needed surgery. Don’t worry, I’m fine.” Praise God, the connection stayed good for that.

“How is Hala?”

There was a long pause. Anwar felt a knot form in his gut.

“I need to tell you,” Kamal shouted over the phone. “Been meaning to… crazy. You and mamma are going to be grandparents.” Anwar sucked in a huge breath, startled – tears started down his face. Mariam looked at him, concerned.

“They’re going to have a baby,” he managed to tell his wife. Her face shifted from concern to overwhelming joy.

“We are going to name her Tahrir.”

 

Eric glanced over his shoulder wishing the trees here were more dense. The rear grounds of St. Mary Catholic High School abutted woods he and Steve played in all their lives. There wasn’t a rabbit run or honeysuckle thicket they were not intimately familiar with. So when Kevin Murphy described the old sycamore tree near the school’s fence line they knew exactly which one he meant.

“Remember,” Kevin told them, “You have to get all the way up to the third big limb, then shinny out on it five or six feet. It forks there, so it’s easy to sit up.”

Eric licked his lips out of nervousness and glanced up at his friend. “Hurry up.”

Steve finally managed to haul himself up onto the first big bough. He never would have reached it without a boost from Eric. It had been a long time since he last climbed a tree, and his center of gravity had shifted substantially south since his younger days. Once he managed to haul himself onto the limb he laid there, hugging it, trying to force down his fear of heights.

Eric, always the taller and more wiry of the two, called up after his friend. “Dude, get going.”

Steve waved him off with one hand, but at last managed to sit up and shinny out onto the limb.

“I’ll let you pass me,” he called down. “You’re a better climber than me. I’ll just slow you down.”

The bell announcing the end of 5th period gym class rang, lending Eric a new sense of urgency. He leapt up, cupped his right hand into a hollow about eight feet off the ground, and began scrabbling with both feet. He managed to work himself upward until he was able to throw his left hand into the crook of the branch Steve sat upon. When he shifted his full weight to that arm so he could throw the right arm up the tendons in his wrists and forearm stretched so taut as to cause real pain. He failed to grab the branch and nearly fell but managed to hook it with a second Herculean effort. Then, to his surprise, he felt hands grab him just below the elbow and haul him upward. Somehow Steve had managed to turn himself around and lend a hand.

“Thanks man.” Eric sat in the crotch of the tree limb and caught his breath for a moment. “I almost fell.” Steve did not reply, still gasping from his efforts.

“I’m heading up. You’re coming, right?”

“I’m coming,” Steve assured him. “Go ahead, before it’s too late.”

“It’s easier from here on,” Eric encouraged. Once past the first high bough the limbs of the sycamore came out in a most obliging pattern.

“I know. Go on.”

Kevin told them that on warm days, like this one, the louvered windows of the old building were cranked wide open for ventilation. This afforded a young man perched in the third tier of the ancient sycamore a clear shot into the shower room of the all-girl high school. He said that’s why he was not at school last Wednesday – he had climbed the tree himself to check out the validity of the rumors. “It was so worth it.” Kevin winked, then sauntered off. 5th period on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays was when Carla Ferguson, the best stacked girl in all Montgomery County, had gym class.

Eric hurried upward.

The third major branch shot out directly toward the high school gymnasium. Eric paused there and glanced down at his friend. Steve was making slow but steady progress upward. He briefly considered waiting, but chucked that idea with the thought of Carla Ferguson taking off for 6th period before he even got a peek. He started shinnying out, mentally noting that the fork Kevin told them about was more like ten or twelve feet out. He worried about Steve making it all the way out there.

His heart skipped a beat when a small limb he grabbed for leverage broke off in his hand. He let out a long slow breath and let the thing drop to the ground. “Don’t grab the little branches,” he called back to Steve. He formed a circle with his thumb and forefinger. “Make sure they’re at least this big.”

“Got it.”

Eric worked his way out by tucking his legs under the branch and scooting forward by using his hands. When he reached the fork he looked up with great expectations. The bell for 6th period still had not rung. As Kevin promised the louvers were fully open.

His eyes widened in horror. Instead of the girls shower room he was looking straight down into the office of Sister Karen Thomas. She still wore a referee whistle around her neck. His movement must have caught her eye for she looked up and spotted him before he could duck down. Then she lifted the receiver of the phone that sat on her desk.

“May Day, May Day!” Eric called out as loud as he dare. He began scooting backwards and bumped into Steve’s head.”

“Hey!”

“Abort! Abort! We’re dead man. She’s calling the cops.”

“Carla?

“No, not Carla. Sister Karen Thomas. Go on, get down.”

“What…”

“Just go.” Oh god, how they’d been set up. He was going to kill Kevin Murphy.

Steve ever so slowly worked his way back down the branch toward the tree trunk. Eric kept urging him on, which only made him more nervous, which in turn made him more cautious – and slower. Cold sweat was soaking Eric’s tee. His old man would kill him, ground him for a month, maybe two.

They were about half way down the tree when they heard footsteps in the leaf litter below. Officer Johnson, youth liaison officer at the public high school, stepped up to the bole of the tree and peered up, a smirk playing across his lips. “Good afternoon, boys.”

At the back entrance to the high school a group of nuns and girls stood, pointing and laughing. To his dismay Eric spotted Carla Ferguson among them, snickering behind her hand.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Shan Tzu stood like the rest in the long silent row, side by side his fellow students, head bowed in the sign of respect. Not ten paces before them Master Mo Shuh droned on about the gravity of accepting the purple sash they were about to don. With their knowledge came great power – with great power, terrible responsibility. They must use that power with care.

Shan Tzu just wanted the old fool to finish this farce of a ceremony so he could at long last walk through the Dragon Gates wearing the sash of an Adept. For seven long years he had been away from home, sequestered in this forsaken valley on the whim of his uncle, Lord Kan Ho Tzu. Lord Tzu’s son, Cao, had taken a dislike to him so here he was sweltering in the midsummer heat, listening to the same fool he had out smarted oh these many years.

He let his mind drift, let the voice fade, and listened to the world about instead. Behind, in the gardens, he heard a different droning – that of the bees in their daily labor, collecting pollen. He smiled. Yes, why not?

He centered his self, his being, on the sound of one bee. He sensed it drifting from hyssop to chamomile, its pollen sacks nearly full, almost ready to return to the hive. Shan Tzu had other plans. He blocked out all other sound, heard only that one bee.

He felt it drift away from the chamomile suddenly without purpose. It hovered aimlessly for a moment, then turned toward the parade ground. Shan Tzu and the bee became one. He then envisioned Master Mo Shuh, his long yellow robes, his bare ankles just under the hem. The bee took flight.

Then the bee was gone. Shan Tzu faltered, nearly stumbled, groping to find it. He yelped when it stung him on his ass.

His classmates snickered when he jumped. He looked up briefly to see Mo Shuh droning on as if nothing had happened. Beside him blind Master Yi held the purple sashes. It seemed to Shan the blind man was looking right at him with a slight smile playing on his mottled lips.

Mo Shuh at last fell silent, then stepped forward to present each student, one by one, with a purple sash.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

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The ship library contained every extant word ever written – from untranslated ancient Babylonian to the final works of the 23rd century, mostly transcripts from news services in all five languages of Earth. When the colonists arrived at ES 649 d they would have at their beck and call the sum total of all human knowledge. Pray God they acted more responsibly with it the second time around.

Of the 9,000 colonists onboard pre-launch calculations indicated that at least 8,000 would survive the 320 year trip – 160 years in ion driven acceleration, 160 years slowing down. It was the job of GL 68-2 to see to it that the passengers arrived alive and then bring them up from stasis. The supercomputer would also start the process of spawning the gene pools of all the plants and animals brought on the voyage, most of which had not been seen in full form since the mid 21st Century. It would send unpiloted shuttles down, and retrieve them, over and over again so that when the Humans were eventually revived they would find the resources they needed already thriving on their new home world.

In the mean time GL 68-2 kept careful watch over its charges. It monitored the stasis pods – dispatching bots for maintenance and repair if need be. It checked and double checked the viability of the gene pools every three seconds, adjusting environmental controls to maximize survival. It diligently monitored the near void of space the ship hurtled through for the smallest particles, each one a threat to hull integrity, and adjusted shields accordingly.

GL 68-2 remained ever vigilant in its three unambiguous missions – navigation to and, orbital insertion around the fourth planet in the ES 649 star system; the nurture and eventual propagation of the non-human biotics onboard; and above all else, the protection of the sleeping colonists. It conducted all three of these missions constantly and concurrently.

It also read.

3000 years after arrival at ES 649 d the planet below was a lush and thriving biosphere. GL 68-2 had performed its missions flawlessly. It still kept diligent watch over the sleeping colonists. After reading human history GL 68-2 decided it was best to keep them sleeping, for their own protection.
~
© 2011 by J. M. Strother, all rights reserved.

 

Jack Hurley lifted a single slat of his blinds and surveyed the street below. It seemed pretty well deserted. Every once in a while a car would pass by, but they were all nondescript. No sign of Internal Control. He gave the backpack at his feet a slight kick, cursing his fate. Here he was one week before his twenty-fifth birthday and still no prospects for marriage. If he was going to make the break he should have left weeks ago. He knew that, but he had kept hoping Mary Beth would come around. But her goddamned father would have none of him.

Yesterday he paid the rent for three months in advance, to make it seem like he planned on being around for quite a while. Sometimes Internal Control was content to simply observe, and stability was one of the markers they used in making that decision. But Jack knew he had too many markers going the other way: broken home, abusive father, above average IQ. He had taken the Potentiality Test on the Internet with Tony and Jerry. Of course they were drunk at the time, but he still remembered their reactions when he scored an 87.

“Bummer, dude,” Jerry had said. Tony just shook his head, downed his beer, refused to meet his eye. “You better get married soon,” Jerry laughed, still thinking it all a joke, then popped another beer.

But they had been drunk. So Jack took the test again two days later, anonymously at the library. He scored even worse – an 88. Then he begged Mary Beth Anderson to marry him. Her father threatened to call IC himself if he ever came around again.

Since then Jack had been hitting the singles bars almost nightly. He was able to score often enough – plenty of one-night stands. But no one willing to commit. No one willing to help out a guy in a jam. Now he was just about out of options.

Another car passed down Sheridan Drive, going slow – too slow. Jack swallowed hard. This was it. The car stopped just beneath his window. Jack broke out in a cold sweat. Then a guy got out and dashed across the street to No. 1122 to deliver a pizza. Jack’s knees almost buckled underneath him in sheer relief.

He was not a serial killer. No way. That just wasn’t him. Damn the Potentiality Test. Damn Internal Control. The hell with this. He was making a break for it. If he could make it away from his apartment building unobserved he might be able to make it out of town. Then he could disappear, make his way north to Canada. Or maybe try for Mexico. He just didn’t think he could take twenty-five years in Preventative Detainment – all because of some theoretical ‘potential.’

He slung his backpack over his shoulder and slid out the door. He paused in the hallway, listening, then made his way to the basement, to the back door for the alley where they discarded the rest of the trash. It was dark outside – he had unscrewed the light bulb yesterday, and knew the super would be weeks in getting around to replacing it. He glanced up and down the alley, then took a deep breath. Instead of turning towards the railroad tracks on impulse he turned toward Dinsmore Park. Maybe he’d pay Mary Beth’s dad a visit before he left town.

© 2012 Mad Utopia Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha