Story of the month

On this page are posted my beginning efforts at fiction. Here, at a hoped for rate of once a month I will post a short story, as I continue to branch out in my writing efforts. Let me know what you think in the comments!

The Man in Black (Crime)
It was a few seconds after the black car stopped that the man dressed from his shoes to his gloves in the same color got out. He was deliberate, not afraid, not rushing, but also wasting no time. He walked across the street, past a young girl who was holding up a can, begging for pennies. He didn’t give her any.
The massive doors of the Catholic Church of St. Justinian were closed. An old woman came out as he paused for a moment, she did not look up, but hurried off and out of the picture. The goateed man opened the door, his unbuttoned black sports coat flapping as he did so. As he went in, the girl on the steps with the can made one last effort, but her words were drowned out by the massive sound of the huge doors closing behind him.
Now he was in a darker room, long and high, with the only light coming in a distorted pattern through the stain glass windows of scenes from the Bible, a book he had only read once, and at a time he didn’t want to remember.
Somewhere far away chanting was taking place in Latin, some holy brothers mindlessly repeating words they did not know the meanings of. An old man vacated the commoners’ side of the confessional, and went to the front of the large and gloomy sanctuary to kneel before the statue of the Virgin Mary to pray.
The man in black was now up to confess. He opened the curtain and stepped inside. The chanting continued, and the old man arrived at the statue, his footsteps ceased echoing, and the only sound was of the chanting.
The man opened the small curtain to the other side of the box. The priest, in his full frock, with the crucifix around his neck, a handsome man in his fifties, asked “What can I do for you my son?”
There was a long pause, filled only by the chanting. Finally the stranger replied “Forgive me father, for I have sinned.” Another pause. “At least, I’m about to.” There were six deliberate shots, one after the other. No other sound save a swell in the chanting. The priest slumped, without moving or uttering a word.
The man exited the confessional. After a long moment the man at the front of the church screamed, but never turned around. The man in black opened the lid to a trash can and dropped the gun in. He then opened the doors of the church and stepped back out into the wide and endless world. Melting back in with the throngs. As the doors slammed loudly behind him, the chanting ended.
The Dream of Forty Centuries (Science Fiction)

Help me! I want off this island! I hate it here. It is the ultimate weight loss program. I mean, really; I’m eating lizards, bugs, fish, and clams. There are the occasional sea birds, but not many. I have no idea how many calories I eat a day, but I am worse than high school skinny, I am like high school anorexic. The heat gives me an eighteen hour a day sauna, and the other six hours I try to sleep. There is water, but not enough. There is shade, but not enough-two scrawny little palm trees here in the middle of Nowhere Island.
The water around the coral reef looks great, beautiful, in fact. Good enough to be put on a postcard. Postcards…there were postcards on the ship. Not an ocean ship, I mean, this was a space ship. Of course it was a whole lot bigger, but then-well, imaginary listener, why don’t you sit down and listen. I have little to do, the lizards are not out yet, and those two palm trees are looking scrawnier than ever.
It began about five years ago…as I talk just ignore the bugs, those yellow ones taste awful, the purple ones are alright, but really hard to catch. Anyway, about five years ago the second Hotel Earth was launched. 64 miles above the earth. In weightlessness. It was the best, brightest, most amazing thing anyone had ever seen. But Romulus Osi needed more than that. Until now he had owned gas stations, ship yards, sports teams and other boring stuff. But now he wanted to do something fun, like build a hotel that orbited the moon.
Wait a moment, the one spring on the island is in it’s about fifteen minutes a day when it runs fresh. I need to be sure it is running into my trench so I can keep it. You have no idea how hard it was to rig this up. Just let me get a drink.
I’m back.
Nine months ago, I think (I am losing track of time now) the Lunar Inn and Suites were revealed. It was the grandest thing anyone had ever seen. There were almost two hundred rooms, a pool, a sauna (I wish I had used it less then, and packed more pounds in for now), room service, televisions, and WiFi, of course. Oxygen was made by a complex system of plants and false ecosystems, which acted as natural filters for the air. The water was recycled, and each rotation of staff brought more food and water with it. For those that wanted to pay more than the nine thousand Galactic Credits a day for the stay, during which they were pampered by a rotating staff, they could take a hop to the moon’s surface for a song, or do a spacewalk for just 3K.
For those that did not want their meals in bed, they could eat in the plush restaurant. If you wanted a drink, they would drop the right tablet into a cup of water, and there it was, martini, juice, whatever. When you ordered your food, the waiter went into the kitchen, to the massive machine, and typed in what you wanted. With a whir of noise it dehydrated food, warmed food, spiced food, in short it did whatever you wanted to food, until the plate came out of the slot within about a minute looking great.
I remember standing at the massive observation windows facing earth. From there I could see the last of the twenty spacecraft, each with seven people and the pilot, having taken off from SpacePort America, landing in the docking bay. In a way, that was much how this hotel had been built, with pods arriving for a year and half to dock and stay as an already complete bathroom, bedroom, or something else. Many of the people aboard were money magnets or politicians, launching from two sites, including SpacePort Europe.
And me? I was just a friend of Osi, that Italian billionaire who had brained the whole thing. I was here officially to write press releases, so I brought along a young reporter. He wrote stories, I read them, put my name down, and continued enjoying myself on my vacation.
I turned away from the blackness of space to dimness of the soft lights behind me. I remember I glanced at the clocks on the wall giving earth times. One in the morning at home. I wondered if there were moon time zones. If not, it was just because nobody had thought of it yet, they would, somebody would work it all out, with spacelight savings times and everything, I guessed.
When this was built, it had been in built in amazing time, with less cost than expected. That had driven the inspectors crazy, until they had been reminded that this was a favor to them to be allowed to visit, and had stopped coming, simply because Osi had stopped giving them transportation to his hotel. There was nothing they could do, and he was not technically breaking any law. There was nothing that said you had to transport the inspectors to your facility, and Italy had no space program. Nobody else much cared about it, so they were left to whine and collect taxes. But no more inspections, not even when the full power engine was installed.
Man! I really enjoyed myself that first day. That evening I had dinner with Osi himself, I remember he was wearing a bathrobe and a brown hat while smoking two hundred dollar cigars, he told me he had been well named:
“The first king of Rome was named Romulus. He built an empire. Well, I too have begun something big, but it will not be a few measly acres around one little lake called the Mediterranean. We will have commerce throughout the stars. Man has spent too much time looking at his feet, he needs to look and see how small he is, and once he sees that, once man feels small, then he can dream big.”
“What if something gets in your way?” I asked my old friend.
“What? Like those inspectors that thought they would come up and see how our engines run? Bosh! Industry, man! Business! After all, we had to hurry up here before the competition.”
“How do the engines work?”
“ It’s nuclear.”
“On a space ship? Romulus, is that safe?”
He laughed and took another whiff of his cigar. He gestured at the glass floor of his suite, beneath which we could see the moon’s surface.
“The view is worth the headache, and besides, everything was done according to standard.”
Sorry, I need another drink, ugh, warm. Ok.
The next afternoon, after getting out a story about the daughter of the prime minister of England and her spacewalk; Rigson, my reporter who wore glasses, knee-pants and knew calculus, was checking on stories back home:
They were the usual: A fire was burning in some national forest, the voice of Winnie the Pooh had died, and star 1 was marrying star 2 after breaking up with star 3. All of this was topped off by an exciting and must read story about how our government was full of gerbils, like that was news, and how we were all still headed for the Mayan Apocalypse, some idiot had just got the first date wrong.
That’s when that other story came up. Rigson told me that a few people were sick on board the ship, we didn’t know what it was yet, but they were in sick bay. And should he get it out to the wires?
“No, not yet. Let’s wait a day or two to let that one go out. No early panic, maybe just not acclimated yet.” He shrugged and went back to work. I leaned back and looked at the view of the moon.
Well, that was the first step of the problem, some people got sick. The next day another one was down, they were not too bad, so they went to sick bay with headaches. One more came down the day after that, so it hit the wires, “Altitude Gives Headaches.” Nobody really paid attention, they were too busy talking about how great it was and how fast space travel was coming on. And the spacecraft continued to ferry back and forth.
There was a birthday party on board. Somebody was caught having an affair. Still playing all the way up here. Even the dangers of space didn’t faze some.
That night I lay my head back and looked down at the Atlantic Ocean, so far away. Here artificial days and nights were observed, with massive shades and lights giving the feeling of cycle. But down there, it worked so much better than our fake ones. There, there were no scientific formulas and constant monitoring of a million things to be sure that there was gravity. Nobody had to check oxygen levels, nobody had to steer the thing.
But still, of course, this ship, this job, the ones who had made it happen, it was all for the fun of it. I mean, with the scientists, almost nobody really cared about redshift and expanding universes and micro-organisms and rocks on Mars, except for how much it put into the wallet. It’s not about the work, it’s about the people. That’s why everything is footnoted. When I got back I would get medals for being a genius in my stories. I would be wined and dined. I liked that. Not reporting. There were some, but far too few, who really cared about what they did, it was about what they got.
The next morning, as my eggs were brought, the waitress slipped an orange juice tablet into my water. I took a sip and put the glass down. I unlocked my phone and scrolled through messages. Some senator wanted me to support him-nice quote at the end- and a star wanted me to explain to the world why she had had an affair.
Rigson texted me: U might want to come to sick bay. Something happening.
I took a bite of my eggs and read it again. The waitress was back. “Tell you what sweetheart, here’s a tip, clean up my mess, and send the food to my room.”
When I arrived outside sick bay, Rigson was so excited his purple shoes were untied:
“There’s a situation. Twenty are sick.”
We were about to go in, when Osi and his entourage met us. He was mad.
“I had to hang up on the American president to come, I’m sure he’s furious. He’ll get over it though, if he wants to get reelected. What is it?”
Risgon explained.
“So they got into space for the first time. Like you said in your article, they will be alright soon.”
“I don’t think so. See for yourself.” Osi followed us in. Behind glass, a man lay on a cot. But he was screaming in agony, his hands over his face.
The ship’s doctor was there. “We tried to treat it. It mutated, now every time it is caught by a new carrier, it takes half the time. One has already died. That why I called you.”
“Why do you have him in their like a caged animal?” I asked.
“Because that’s what he is now."
“What’s wrong with him? Why is he screaming?” The sick man stood, as if in answer, and began hitting the glass.
“It is a disease that attacks the tissues of the brain, turning them into acid; they begin to eat away at the skull, until the whole mess falls out. In the last minutes the patients lose their mind and become violent. There is nothing I can do."
Osi started swearing. “Then we get them into the spacecraft, ship them down to earth. I don’t need this getting out."
“Not until we know if it is contagious. If it is we will all have to stay here. If theres no cure, we are not taking this thing back to earth. It is inhaled. Through the nasal passages it goes to the brain, where it starts to work. More like a bacteria than an illness.”
“Who got this first?”
“A passenger.”
“Where’d it come from?”
“I think it is coming from the fuel being used.”
“Fuel?” I asked.
“It takes a great deal of our special fuel to keep this thing running.”
“Special fuel?”
Osi winced. “There are two engines, although you only know about what we call engine 1. The other one is our own design. Using our own fuel.”
“What’s with this?”
“This fuel that powers engine 2 is a hybrid type, coming from a special substance found only In Peru, South America. We had it mined from the ground. It breaks international law to use another form of this, which can be deadly, but we thought we had changed the strain enough to be safe. We had to keep the inspectors away for obvious reasons. Its loads cheaper, which is why I was able to fund this singlehandedly. That is why it took such a short time.”
“Did you even test this?”
“The fuel would have only given off its dangerous vapors once being used under full pressure, like now. The breaking down is what causes this.”
The ship’s captain was radioed, he turned off furnace 2. Only a moment later: “This ship is on fire. It’s engine 1, sir. When 2 went off, the conventional one overloaded.”
Then there was suddenly a massive explosion. We were thrown to the ground. The ship was in flames. Osi screamed “We are getting out of here right now!” He then filled the air with expletives.
I roared back “If we’re leaving, let’s leave!”
We began running. Osi started a headache. Already electrical fires were bursting out of the walls as we passed, small explosions rocked the ship, and people around us were screaming. Here they were, two hundred thousand miles from home, all their oxygen on board this little thing that could crack like an eggshell. This was fear.
“Get into the ships, orderly now. The attendant will take your number. Do not overload, no pushing.”
I asked Osi “What about the ones who are sick? We could all be carrying it.”
No answer. He fell to the ground, holding his head. The doctor grabbed him. “He’s got it and going fast. I’ll inject him so he won’t feel it or lose his mind.”
I then remembered my history. The first king of Rome was named Romulus, but so was its last emperor.
I turned and ran to the group of guards who stood watching the people climb into the ships. I have no idea what I was doing, didn’t then.
“We can’t let these people get back to earth. We could kill off the entire planet. Were’ probably all dying of it! Who’s in charge now?” The ship’s captain was missing-the fires, the screaming, the death. “With Osi gone, we cannot open those doors, once we do these ships take off, and all those germs go to earth. We have to self-destruct this thing.”
The second lieutenant held up a phone. “Two buttons. One takes off, one self-destructs. I’m not pushing anything.” He was confused, afraid.
I held it in my hand. In front of us people were loading. Little kids, people with lives and families back on earth.
“Last ship, enough room for all of us."
We got in. I held up the phone. Another explosion. More screaming. I closed my eyes and pressed Eject. The bay doors slid open, but at that moment, there was a massive explosion, ripping off wings and hurling the spacecraft out in the wrong way.
I heard screaming, glass shattering, the spacecraft hit each other. I kept my eyes closed as I felt myself falling. My head hit something, and life went black.

Lights beeping, sounds. The universe was still around.
The pilot was still in his seat. I laid him on the floor. The communications were down. I used the thrusters, what was left of them, to bring it down. Everyone else was dead aboard. It was coming into the waves. I guess nobody saw it. I crash landed and swam to shore here. It had just enough to get me down, and then it burned out and sank.
No one is looking for me, I am sure of that. Guess I was immune to the disease, anyway I never got it. I am still starving. But maybe that’s ok. Someone will come eventually, until then I need to think, I need to clear my head. When I leave this island, if I leave this island, I will do it a new man.
Our crime was not trying to conquer the heavens, it was hurry and carelessness. We didn’t use the best, we didn’t guard ourselves. Instead we rushed to get into the sky to see the earth from above, and ended up falling back to it.
I am laying here all alone now, and I am tired. The hulk of a Lunar Hotel floats above my head two hundred thousand miles. More empires of space will come. More people will die. There will be more loses, and more victories, more difficult decisions like mine, and more horrible deaths. But the end of it all is to fulfill the dream of man-to conquer the universe. It is not a bad dream, but if you dream while asleep, if you push ahead and kick down every safeguard because you forgot they were there to protect you, you are bound to destroy yourself. Mankind! Go on with your exploration, but tread softly.

The Old Senator

The quorum call in the senate was still on. It almost always was, it seemed, in the sweltering summer days of Washington when most of the senators were away and there was no “quorum” or majority of senators there, to conduct business. The clerk was endlessly calling the roll, but since the only people in the senate besides the bevy of aides and pages was the bored freshman from Florida who was sitting in the chair, and a couple of old senators in the back talking, the freshman from Florida could not bang his gavel down as he so wanted to, and say “the senate will now come to order.”
And so he sat half asleep, playing with an a piece of paper and a pen, with which he was drawing mindless images of what he supposed were stick people dancing, or maybe it was modern art, and he could sell it for a million bucks.
He smiled to himself and sat up, buttoning his coat, the same one he had worn the day before, and looked languidly at the clock. Another whole hour before this torture would be over, and another would come to take his place as president of the senate. (Didn’t the title sound so dignified?)
Dignity was of course the main thing a senator had to uphold here in this august chamber.  He wondered how others had managed to do it. From all reports, air conditioning hadn’t been around, (he wouldn’t know, he wasn’t there) when the “Greats” such as Henry Clay, Webster, and Calhoun had stood in this chamber and pounded out their views and beliefs, giving speeches so beautiful it was said women swooned in the galleries, and indeed even the men said that the prose was high and the poetry so flowing, that it was said that men who could give such speeches “should never have to die.”
But they had saved the union in their time, stopping the civil war long enough for Lincoln to move in to the White House, and to save the Union.
The junior senator wished occasionally these days that someone like that would come to the senate. The speeches given now in this age of political correctness when everything had to be qualified, and emotion was called grandstanding, were, for lack of a better phrase, about as interesting as listening to someone talk about their gall bladder surgery for the thirtieth time. It was almost hard to believe young people were no longer interested in politics. There were some days when even the senator wasn’t interested in politics.
The most interesting things going on right now was some bill about water laws, it was all very complicated. But the Republicans screamed that if it was passed, America would be a communist nation in twenty years, Nazi flags would fly over Washington, and the rights of people everywhere would be lost, and the constitution finally killed. On the other hand Democrats shrieked that anyone who didn’t pass the bill so long that the Florida senator was pretty sure no one had actually read it was un-American, hated little children, hated ethnic groups and hated women, and that if the bill were not passed today, slavery would be back tomorrow.
He looked back at the clock and sighed inwardly. He was so tired of all this, and he was only in his second year here. But had played the game well. The senator to hold the seat before him was now in the White House, and he himself was biding his time. He had said the right things on the stump, had talked to the right people, and there were already rumors that when a couple of people who were ahead of him in line were done, he would have his chance at the Oval Office. Of course, it was made abundantly clear to him that if he were to find his way to vote with the leadership on this water bill, it would be so much the better for his ambitions. So he was voting with the leadership, and he would find some reasons why afterwards.
The game was going well, everyone was getting rich, everyone was getting a high job, and the water bill would be twisted and torn and ripped and changed until it probably died without a vote, to be sure that nobody’s chances were harmed. That was the dignity of the senate now, it was undignified to do the right thing, undignified if you rocked the boat too much. Clearly, the Union needed some saving.
The young senator had nearly fallen asleep again in the hot and sweaty chair when the call came. It first came to someone in an office in another building, a call they had expected, but didn’t relish. That person relayed it to the secretary of another senator, who then called her boss; who was out playing gold with people he was hoping would give him money. As much as he wanted to answer the call, he was doing something too important. He deferred it to a colleague.
That colleague however was too busy at a hearing looking into his money records where some very bored lawyers were figuring out if the fact that a man had given him one million dollars had been related to the fact that that man had also been helped by the senators’ vote.
So he deferred to yet another senator, who was trying to uphold the dignity of the senate while he was bargaining on the phone for a newly empty cabinet position with the president, promising support on the water bill if he got it. He deferred to the person on the top of his head, the junior senator from Florida.
And so it was that a call was put through to his office, who called his aide, who handed him the phone. And that was how the junior senator from Florida heard the news that the senate’s oldest living former member, the old, old senator from Kansas, was about to die.
It had been expected for years, and years. Many had wondered, some even aloud, how the man was able to hold on to life so long. It seemed a miracle. He had been there through so much. He had watched as Kennedy was shot, he had been there. He had been there, and he had fought desperately to pass the laws allowing blacks to be integrated into society. He had had death threats of his own during those times as he fought to make it the right of all men and women to be seen equally before the law as they were seen in the eyes of God.
He had lost both of his sons, one in the jungles of Vietnam, and the other to a cocaine overdose, in the same year, and his wife to a car crash in the next.
And now, the man who had been in the senate for over fifty years, before retiring two years ago, was dying slowly in a hospital here in Washington DC, with no family to be there in his last days. He had had only one request, to have a senator there when he died, because senators had been there so often while he lived. And so the hospital had sent out the call, which was picked up by the junior senator from Florida.
He got up now. There was no question, he was going. He had respected the man for as long as he could remember. He had been part of a breed now nearly gone, if not extinct, a breed who thought about issues, not votes. Who thought about people, not politics.
And so he got into his car, and drove, air conditioning all the way up, speed a bit over the limit, until he arrived at the hospital. He had to take the stairs, the elevator was broken, his legs moving quickly and his face sweating, to room 357, where he was ushered into the presence of a withered, tired body on a small cot, with machines hooked up to every inch of it, the low rhythmic humming of something or other the only sound in the room.
Although the senator had rushed here, just barely pausing to have someone else take his place, that someone else shocked he had broken with the schedule and done something not planned, now he felt apprehensive, unsure of himself. He walked slowly to the side of the bed, quietly, afraid of what to do, not finding any words.
The ancient eyes were closed, the breathing slow, exhausted after a long hard war with many battles in it, this one the last. The young man stood watching the old one, his hands sweating now. When, as if on cue, the old eyes opened, and the head turned towards him. For a long time there was nothing, just a meeting of the eyes. Finally, the old man spoke.
“I asked them to send a senator…”
“I know, sir.” came the reply. The young man couldn’t think of anything to say at the moment, except for “I am one.”
The old man stared up at him, he seemed to be processing his words. “Oh,” came the feeble, faint response, barely audible. “I didn’t know. They…” he faltered, “They make them so young now.”
The young senator smiled. “I’m the same age now you were then, the day you walked into the senate after a battle with a man who said America should always remain separate but equal.”
The old man seemed to have to think for a moment before replying. “Yes, yes, I did have a hard fight. It was a long battle. You know they tried to kill me more than once. But I kept going, and we won.”
The young senator could think of nothing to say but “thank you.”
The old man reached out his hand. “I love the senate, you know. The most dignified body in the world. That’s what we are. That’s why I wanted you to come today. Because for all these years, I always thought I would like to die in the chamber, but” he sighed and laid back his head, “I thought I might as well die with one of you boys close.”
The young senator could see that the life was going. It would not be long now. He could feel that a great man was about to step through the doors of eternity, to be lost forever, and he had just one question.
“How…how did you do it?”
The eyes opened again, “do…do what?”
“All you did.” the young man stammered, “All the things you did.”
“Oh, it was tough, but we just did the right thing. But” and he forced himself to look up in the young man’s eyes. “Now there is you’re generation, and I know you’ll carry on, just like I did, keep the work going.” The words stung, and stung deeply.
It was not long after that the heart that had beat so long and so nobly ceased to beat forever. The young senator of a cynical generation wiped a single tear from his eyes as he left. But as he did the words rang in his ears, the right thing. Well, if nothing else good came of a day that saw a great man leave, he thought to himself as he got into his car and heard it announced on the radio  that “one of the senate’s former great has just left us” he would do something he had never planned on doing. It would be tough, but it would be a start. He would read the water bill.
And he knew that somewhere up in heaven, in a senate of another dimension, where all the great men of the past, Adams, Clay, Hart, Webster, Kennedy, etc. sat, waiting, in quorum call, because a majority had not yet arrived. But suddenly, through the back doors, hair in a mess because of his rush, papers under his arm, came a man who had entered the earthly body more than fifty years before. And as he did the man at the front, with a long flowing beard and a staff, smiled, noted the presence of a quorum, and pounded his gavel, saying “the senate will now come to order.”

1 comment:

  1. The Man in Black story actually scared me. Job well done.