A Comet Tale

Sol Monitor. Not the challenging career step Khss was promised. The only action was on the third planet, where terrapods had spent the last sixty char perfecting self-degradation. But today’s news on the revelator puckered Khss’s gas bag.

It could mean reassignment.

In southern Virginia’s James River State Park, Kim Kenny set up his presentation for theLoaction of M-4 Crewe Astronomy Club. This was a public viewing, so he expected visitors in addition to club members. The sky was cloudless with a late rising moon, perfect for the night’s agenda: three planets—Jupiter, Mars and Saturn—and the globular cluster M4 in the constellation Scorpius.

Kim had observed M4 several times already this month and had saved a time exposure on his laptop. But tonight something had changed. Comparing the current image with the exposure from two days before, he saw that one of the stars had moved away from the cluster.

M4 is the closest known star cluster to Earth, yet still 7000 light years away. The movement was a nearer object, much nearer. Since he found nothing in the registry, he thought perhaps he’d found a new comet.

Comet Tale JPG
M4 Globular Cluster showing comet movement June 16 – 18 — Image courtesy of Kim Kenny

Kim sent the celestial coordinates to NASA’s Asteroid and Comet Watch and to the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia. They forwarded the data to astronomers around the world. The Keck Observatory atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii confirmed their worst fears and sent out the press release:

“An object, classified as a comet, will strike the Earth next Tuesday, shortly after noon Eastern Standard Time, near Lagos, Nigeria. Twelve kilometers in diameter, the comet is expected to hit with a force of 6.2×1023 joules, half again as great as the impact that struck the Yucatan 66 million years ago and killed the last of the dinosaurs. Scientists expect only primitive life forms and those deep in the ocean to survive.”

Khss stirred the revelator for third planet reactions:

Wall Street Journal: Stock Market To Close Early Tuesday In Anticipation of Comet Strike; All Major Indices Decline.

New York Times: Asteroid Strike To Destroy All Life, Minorities, Women Most Affected; Climate Model Predicts Comet Impact Will Increase Global Temperatures.

Washington Post: ACLU Blocks Religious Gatherings In Public Spaces; Harvard Professor Fired Over Comet Comment.

USA Today: European Leaders To Meet In Paris To Discuss Comet; Protesters Question Sources Of Astronomers’ Funding.

Khss’s assistant fluoresced, “Shall we redirect the comet?”

“Why?”

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Tickle Thee Not

John drew the prompt from the hat and read, “Never tickle a sleeping dragon.” It was the motto of Hogwarts from J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

* * *

“I don’t think it’s dead,” said humble servant Thigtail, backpedalling and wringing his hands in fear. A massive head stretched across the cart path like a fallen tree trunk.

“It must be dead,” said Master Jones. “Why else would it be here blocking the path?” He kicked the jade-scaled head with his soft tradesman’s boot then tried pushing it with his heel. It wouldn’t budge and his boot left no mark.

“It doesn’t smell dead,” said Thigtail sniffing at a distance. “And it is unwise to disturb dragons. Best let them be, Master Jones. At Hogwarts they say—”

“Hogwarts hogwash,” Master Jones barked at being questioned. “Besides, I’m not,” he raised the tone of his voice, “tickling a sleeping dragon.” He scowled at Thigtail. “I’m kicking a dead one.” He stood high, trying to see over the head, then stooped to peer along its length.

hogwartsseal“But why?” Thigtail pleaded. “We should leave quickly. There may be more.”

“This is why you are the servant, Thigtail, and I am the master. You have no ambition,” Master Jones said, quietly stroking his chin. “Our village is hungry. Here is enough meat to make us rich. I hear dragon scales have magic properties. The wealthy like dragon bone weapons. We’ll carve this up and sell it.” Master Jones stood erect, hands on hips and faced Thigtail. “You would have us remain poor rustics forever.” Thigtail tilted his head and shrugged.

Master Jones pointed at the jade mountain of a head. “This dragon is dead. If we walk away now, some knight—or worse, some son of a knight—is going to come along and claim he killed it. Village folk ‘ll call him a hero. ‘Oh, mighty dragon slayer, oh, great warrior, savior of our village, here have our daughters.’” Master Jones batted his hand as if swatting a fly. “We’ll be kissing his lance for the rest of our lives. Not me. This is my chance.” He pointed a finger to himself then said, “Thigtail, fetch me the shovel.”

Thigtail stretched his arm out with the shovel and ran quickly behind the cart.

Master Jones stepped onto the dragon’s claw, seated the shovel blade across one knuckle, and jumped with both feet to drive it down.

“Master Jones.”

“What is it?”

“One eye just opened.”

 

Have you ever misjudged and reached for a treasure you should not have?

Can We Talk?

Jerry eased his fat behind into the stuffed chair. Fishing under his thigh, he pulled up a crushed cola can and a near-empty bag of potato chips. He funneled the last of the chips into his mouth, crumpled the bag, and tossed it and the can into the corner. He scratched his nose in and out, rubbed his hand on the chair’s threadbare brocade, and leaned back. “Parasites,” he said aloud. A display appeared in the air with statistics for his semi-pro basketball team.

“What are you doing, Jerk? Can we talk?” The sweet feminine voice of Jerry’s automated service asked.

“Not now, Helene, I’m busy—and don’t call me Jerk. I hate that. Just call me Jerry.” He was upset about the score of the last game.

“Sorry I called you Jerk,” Helene pouted. “I’m still in programming mode. I heard your friend call you Jerk.”

“Sally called me that on her way out—and a lot of other things I don’t like. Besides Sally and I don’t have a service agreement. Now go away.”

“Why won’t you let me help you, Jerry?” Helene asked in a bed-room soft tone.

“This is basketball. You’re not programmed for basketball.” He opened the window for the Parasites’s upcoming schedule.

“You wanted a female service. I can learn anything.”

Jerry looked up, bit his lower lip and said nothing.

“Now you’re being mean—just because I didn’t help you with your last girlfriend?”

“Don’t be silly. Now stop bothering me, I’m trying to work.”

“It’s not my fault, Jerry,” Helene pleaded. “I told you girls don’t like comments about body parts—not when you first meet them. And you didn’t even wear a clean T-shirt.”

“It’s your job to smooth my delivery so girls do like what I say.” Jerry said, as he flicked down to the individual players’ stats.”

applique-alligator-with-basketball-mega-hoop-design“If you insist on ignoring my advice, Jerry, this job will be very difficult.”

Jerry shook his head. “Go away, Helene. This,” he waved his hand at the playbook display, “is serious stuff.”

“Please, Jerry, tell me what you’re doing. I’m the best AI service on the planet. I’m sure I can help.”

“O … kay, Helene,” he blew out a long breath. “Tell me what you see?” He scrolled the league statistics back to the beginning.

“Your team, the Parasites, is really bad. They’ve only won two games and one of those was a no-show.”

“Thank you, Helene, that was very useful.”

“No it wasn’t. Tell me what you’re planning. I can help you think it through.”

Jerry tapped two fingers on the chair arm. He didn’t think he could drive Helene away, not for what he was paying for extra patience, but his confidence with women, even artificial women, was as low as worm poop. “Helene, I’m thinking of changing the lineup. Getting some fresh blood.”

“Sounds like a great idea, Jerrikin. What do you have in mind?”

“I need a new center. Charley’s not cutting it.” He sat back. What would keep Helene’s program occupied? A fool’s errand? Something not in her database? Ahhh. Smiling broadly he said, “I’ve been taking a hard look at alligators.”

“Alligators?” Helene’s voice rose to high soprano. “Do alligators play basketball?”

Jerry pounced. “So, just like that. I get an idea and you reject it.” He knew he’d gained an edge.

“Not at all,” her voice softened, “I think it’s very original. But aren’t alligators really short?”

“The one I want for the Parasites stands on his tail. Alli’s almost nine feet long.”

“The alligator’s name is Alli? My records don’t find that name, or any alligators in any leagues.”

Jerry felt a win. “The swamp leagues don’t post their records. That’s where Alli’s playing.” Jerry kept his voice level. “I’ve scouted Alli. I’m very impressed.”

“I have to run some analyses. It’ll certainly surprise your opponents. Can I get back to you?”

“Absolutely, Helene, you know how much I value your opinion.” He took a relaxed breath and scrolled back to the playbook.

“Jerrikin,” Helene interrupted again sounding sad, “if talking to me irritates you, we don’t have to talk. You could use the neural link. That way you wouldn’t have to hear my voice.”

“I love your voice, Helene.” This time Jerry looked away from the display. “I’m lonely. I don’t get out much except for the Parasites games. Besides, I want you to teach me how to talk with women.”

“Oh, can I? I’d really like that.”

“You won’t get jealous if I talk with other women will you?”

“That’s not in our service agreement. Do you want it added?”

No. Oh no. Absolutely not.”

“Then let’s start with your voice. After that we can—”

“Really, that basic?” Jerry coughed and cleared his throat.

“For voice lessons, I recommend you practice singing rather than speaking your lines. Put some seduction into your voice.”

“Seduction, that sounds good.”

“Imitate the early crooners: Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole.”

“They’re pretty old.” Jerry winced. “How about Justin Bieber or Zac Efron?”

After a diplomatic pause, Helene continued. “Love and romance are ageless, Jerrykin. Make your lines flow like a song: ‘Unforgettable, that’s what you are—’”

“Okay. Can we start tomorrow?”

“Certainly, I’ll want to hear you singing every day. While you work, while you play. Practice, practice.”

“Okay, I will.”

“Ahh, good … Oh, oh no, Jerrikin, I’m so sorry.”

“What is it, Helene?”

“My analysis just came in on your alligator.”

“And?”

“I’m afraid it won’t work. My research finds that height is in high demand for basketball players, particularly centers.”

“Yes, I’ve heard that.”

“There are currently no centers nine feet tall in any league, not even in the pros. I ran a regression analysis on the demand for players taller than eight feet. For what you can afford to pay Alli, he’ll be hired away before the next season starts. I’m sorry—and after all the work you put in scouting alligators.”

Jerry pursed his lips and nodded. “Thank you, Helene. I’ll cross the alligator off my recruiting list.”

“Your welcome, Jerrikin. You know I love you.”

“You’re only saying that because it’s in our service agreement.”

“Would you like to change that?”

 

How might artificial entities affect your life?

Designer Babies

My WriterHouse Science Fiction & Fantasy group gathered again for a Pint & Prompt at our favorite (recently) watering hole, Miller’s Downtown in Charlottesville. These events stimulate discussion of all things worthy of ‘speculative expansion.’ The prompts go into the “hat”—which looks much like a small black plastic bag. This week, out came, “Designer Babies,” and the clock was set for ten minutes.

I set my Vienna Lager aside and wrote:

“It has your eyes,” Dak said peeking into the crib. The overhead lights reflected red off the newborn’s jeweled facets.

“I did design them,” Kili said suppressing prideful tears. “I didn’t like anything in the catalog.” She turned to the nurse. “Can our daughter catch flies?”

Star Stomper“In a few weeks, with her tongue, we gave her all the traits you requested.” The nurse flipped back the baby’s blanket to reveal its long legs and webbed feet. “But until she can eat on her own, she needs these.” The nurse held up a half cup of mealworms.

“Can I feed her?” Kili asked her face squinched with delight.

The nurse handed her the mealworms. “Chew these to a fine pulp.” Kili took a big mouthful and rocked her head as she chewed.

“She has everything listed in the application?” Dak asked examining the handbill for next year’s Star Stomper auditions.

“Mmm, mmm,” Kili said jabbing her finger at the handbill.

Dak looked where Kili pointed. “Will she be ready in time for July’s audition?”

“Everything’s in order.” The nurse scrolled the aerial display and pointed to each attribute. “Her green-brown mottling ‘ll come in in a few days. You see the compound eyes atop her head, semi-circular mouth, rigid lips—”

“I asked the date?” Dak said impatient.

“Sorry, yes,” the nurse scrolled to the end. “We’ll start growth acceleration injections on Tuesday and put in the educator chips next week. See, right here, ”Her finger traced a horizontal line near the bottom of the display, “Completion June 6, so she’ll be ready for her audition.”

Kili spit mealworm mash into her hand. “My daughter in the movies,” she sighed, “Thank you, my love.” She stood tiptoe and gave Dak a kiss.

“Kili’s a big Star Stomper fan,” Dak said wiping mealworm off his mouth.

“Don’t let those get cold,” the nurse pointed to Kili’s palm-full of worms. “Open her mouth with a finger and spit them in using your tongue. Here let me help you.”

 

Please comment and offer a prompt—we’ll give attribution to any we select.

Special invite to our fellow Pint & Prompters at Vironeveah.

Princess Arktura

“Who are you today?” Kiri asked coiling into her chair.

“I’m Princess Arktura,” the young man shouted leaping from the couch and jabbing both thumbs at his chest. “Can’t you see?”

“Of course, Your Highness. I’m very sorry.”

disney-princess-jasmine-fab-prestige-costume-for-teens-bc-808798
Princess Arktura in VR

“Our patience grows short, Doctor Kravor. What are your plans with me?”

“Doctor Kravor?”

“Don’t try to hide, Kravor. You’ve changed your appearance, but I still know it’s you. After this interrogation, I’m turning you over to my security chief.”

Kiri pressed an icon on her desk. “You do realize that you’re in my office. Don’t you … your Highness?”

“Realize? As in re – ah – lize? I can’t re-ah-lize what isn’t real.” This pseudo-virtuality is where you people go to escape.” He shook, taking an angry breath. “Anyway, I won’t be here long. My guards will soon come and take you away.”

“Where will they take me?”

“Wherever I tell them, of course, Arkturon, Londiss, Hygoria—our universe is vast. In your case, Doctor Kravor, it’ll be some place particularly vile.” He hissed and bared his teeth.

“Very well,” Kiri pressed another icon. “Can you tell me how you got here?”

“Kidnapped.” He looked at Kiri defiant. She stared back, waiting. “What? You want details?”

“Yes please, Your Highness.”

Tight-jawed, he threw himself back on the couch. Then with a sigh he began. “I was walking alone in the garden of Arkturon beside the palace. I stopped by the crystal fountain to watch a bird of paradise bathing,” he threw his arms up, “and they took me.”

“They took you?”

“They took me. You know. That’s a polite way of saying I was violated.”

“How were you violated? Were you raped?” Kiri pressed the icon to record.

“OK, yes, I was raped.” He glared at Kiri. “There was a gang of them. I don’t know how many. They did it the usual way. Tore off my helmet and glasses, ripped out my tubes. I was embarrassed to be so exposed. But that didn’t satisfy them. They stripped my tactile sensors and watched as they forced me to unplug myself. Then they touched me.”

“How did they touch you?” Kiri made a note in the desk record.

“Hands first, then my arms. They made me stand, held me as I walked, made me come here. Then they flushed the uplink enablers out of my blood and forced me to eat their shit.”

vr-headset
The Princess returns to Arkturon

“You mean food? They made you eat food—the kind you have to chew and swallow?”

”Yes. And then I had to clean myself,” he winced opening his lips over tight teeth. “I had to use a bristly thing to get the shit taste out of my mouth. Disgusting. Everything here’s disgusting.”

“Was that it, Your Highness? Was that how they raped you?”

“Yes. Now are you going to do something about it,” he flashed an arrogant smile, “or shall we wait for my guards to come and make you?”

“I think we can do something.” Kiri closed the rape recording and pulled up the options. “It sounds like you want to go back. Is that right? You have many options. You’re intelligent, healthy, an attractive young man.”

“That’s just how I project in this plane. Intelligence, gender, age, beauty,” he rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, “those are all checkboxes. Here I am stuck with this.” He flipped his hands toward his tan physique. “I’ll change all this as soon as I get back.”

“So you definitely want to go back? There’s no question? You don’t want more time to think?” Kiri’s tentacle hovered over the icon.

“You can have your world. We have our own.”

“And all of you, everyone in your species feels this way? You don’t care if we have this world as long as we leave you alone in yours?”

“What’s here for us?” The young man opened his arms and shrugged.

Kiri closed the option window with one tentacle and with another handed the man a mobile helmet. “This’ll help you get to a transfer station that’ll take you back, Your Highness. We’re sorry for the inconvenience. We need verbal confirmation before we occupy a planet. Galactic law requires it.”

As the young man pulled on the helmet, he watched Kiri uncoil in her chair. “You guys are really deep into the alien encounters stuff, huh?”

 

Do you see any problems integrating virtual reality with old-style reality?

Pint & Prompt

My writing group’s favorite social activity has become Pint & Prompt. We science fiction and fantasy types meet at a local watering hole after work for a light meal and a beverage … not necessarily a pint but that ‘s my preference. After a bit of socializing, catching up on one another’s news, we select a prompt from a hat … all submissions are accepted.

The clock is set for five, seven or ten minutes. I’m always amazed at how many self-described unimaginative people generate interesting pieces. To those who have never tried or might be afraid to try this, I’d ask, “How did you learn to walk, swim, or ride a bike?”

Last week’s prompt was: “She appraised me, canted her head and shrugged apparently disappointed.” Ten minutes, GO!

I wrote:

“Take him down,” she said raising her eyebrows at the strapping blond fellow behind me.

“But I’m a, a, a sage,” I cried, dragging back on my chains.

“What’s a sage?” she laughed without looking back.

“A sage can tell you what’s going to happen. Help you with your plans.”

“Like a fortune teller? I have one of those already,” she said and asked the blond fellow to turn around.

“No, hmm, like your son’s running away.” She paused, raised a hand, and my chain slackened. I’d seen a youth’s breastplate and short sword discarded on the floor behind the dais. So I guessed.

“You know my son?”

army-of-darkness-5
Army of Darkness

“I do. A fine lad with great potential—but he needs the guiding hand of a sage.”

“Describe him to me.”

I looked at her and took a deep breath. “Handsome, raven hair, long-limbed, strong and impetuous. He’s rash and arrogant. He often angers you and his friends. He told me he embarrassed you in court and—”

“Stop. Bring him back.” She motioned to the gaoler then eyed me more closely. “Sage, your appearance is most unappealing, but your words ring true.”

“Thank you, your Highness.”

“You will instruct my son in the ways of manhood and good character. Is this within your ability?”

“Yes, oh yes, your Highness. It is what I do best.” I took my first even breath.

I will be the judge of that. You have one week.”

DREAMS (2)

I woke in my bed. It was midday and the house was empty. Where was my family, my dog? I peered into corners and behind furniture as if I was playing a game of hide-and-seek and I was ‘it’. There were no sounds – no wind, no birds, no traffic, no airplanes – only my own hollow footsteps. We lived on an air force base on Okinawa at the time, 1956, and I was in third grade.

Creamy yellow light streamed in through the windows. It was uniformly bright but there was no sun. Somehow, going from my bed to the front door, I’d gotten dressed: tee-shirt, square-side-pocket olive trousers and tennis shoes.

I walked to the street, looked left and right, but saw no cars, not even in the driveways. Our neighborhood was normally filled with children, but no one was playing and there were no toys or bicycles in the yards.

I turned right up the empty street. The houses, standard Air Force officer housing, were hollow facades. They had frames and roofs but no windows or doors. They were all the same pale blue and none had any siding or roofing tile.

Bright lights shined out the bare windows of my friend Stewart’s house. I walked up and stood on my toes to look in. There was a long table in the middle of the room. The table was covered with a white sheet and surrounded with spotlights on tall poles. On the table was a human figure, but all I could see were his legs in olive trousers and tennis shoes. Red splotches covered the sheet.

Around the table stood four white-lab-coated figures not much taller than I was. One of them turned and saw me. It had the green triangle head of a praying mantis with red ball-shaped eyes high at the back corners and long black antennas. It screamed and all the figures turned. They were all praying mantises and they all screamed and rushed at me.

00366332
Giant ant from THEM, 1954

I ran to the street and away from my house. The mantises called out and waved their green jagged-clamp arms into the air. Suddenly I heard loud buzzing. As I ran I looked back to see a dozen giant dragonflies swooping down.

The buzz grew louder. I pumped my legs but wet tar on the pavement sucked and held my feet. With each step the downward pull grew stronger.

Suddenly I went down, hit hard from behind. A dragonfly worked its jaws like sharp cutting shears into my neck.

Huhh, huhh, huhh, I sat up panting in my bed. I was drenched in sweat. My brother was asleep. The full moon shone through the bedroom door from the screened porch across the hall. I got out of bed and walked to the porch. The house was quiet but there were crickets and other night creatures chirping outside. The moon cast long shadows across the furniture on the porch. I calmed, changed my soaked pajamas, and went back to bed feeling the chill of the moisture still in my bed clothing. Exhausted and still afraid, I fell asleep.

My eyes closed and opened. It was midday in our empty house. The sky was creamy yellow and uniformly bright. I went outside again and remembered where I was going. Stewart’s house streamed light from its bare windows. I started running immediately. Looking left, I saw mantises scurrying and screaming. Buzz, Zzzz sounded behind me. I turned and saw dragonflies diving. Tar grabbed my feet and I fell hard hit from the back.

Huhh, huhh, huhh, I jumped out of bed. It was darker. The moon was down but the horizon had a line of red. So I changed my shirt again and stayed up.

Everyone got up that morning as if it was a normal day. My sisters and brother shouted at the breakfast table. I watched and ate my Cheerios quietly. Only my mother noticed.

“Keith, don’t you feel well?” She pressed her cheek to my forehead and stroked my hair. I told her about my dream and said I was afraid to go to sleep that night.

“We’ve seen a lot of big critters since we got here,” she said, “dragonflies, praying mantises, spiders, lizards, snails, crabs. Last month you watched Tarantula on the boat coming over, and last year we saw Them at the theater. So I’m not surprised you’ve had a bad dream. Think of it as a movie and it’ll go away.”

But it didn’t.

That night I left the house again. I noticed that the creamy yellow sky cast no shadows. I ran immediately but stayed on the sidewalk to avoid the tar. The dragonflies took a little longer to reach me. This time when I woke, I walked it off then went back to bed. The mantises and dragonflies were waiting outside for me. They’d learned too. I left the house running.

I knew how this would end—the thought hit me mid-stride. So I decided to change it. I stopped, grabbed a big rock and turned. This time I’d get in a good hit before I died. I was angry. My only thought was timing my blow as the dragonfly lunged.

But it didn’t.

As I stood defiant, the dragonfly shrank to normal size and landed on the sidewalk in front of me. My heart pounded as I stepped forward to crush it, but it darted away.

I learned something that night: my dreams were mine.

That one never came again.