Public Enemy #1

To avoid prosecution, I have to confess everything before midnight—that’s when the Artificial Justice Law goes into effect. And since litigation is still pending on Thought Crimes United v. Humans, I’ll go ahead and get a few things off my chest.

The AI judges don’t understand this, but crime is a kick—all crime. That’s right, I just said that crime is fun. If you’re not eaten up with fear of getting caught, it’s a very heady experience.

So, let me say at the onset, I am NOT sorry for any of my virtual crimes. Not a thing. Not watching VR porn. Not stealing others’ virtual stuff. Not sabotaging avatars or jacking the program to make them perform obscene acts. Am I the only one who can admit this? Do I hear crickets? Is everyone out there posturing righteous shock while they jack or otherwise abuse non-player-characters and avatars in a closet?

Let me point out some advantages. Besides entertainment, I get material things. Okay, they’re virtual, but I don’t have to pay or work for them: extra lives, magic artifacts, cool weapons, complicit bed partners—more or less, at least after I tweak their settings.

Taking arrogant assholes down a peg is also very affirming—very ego boosting. You know the ones I mean: the rich Dudes and Duch-asses that buy status without actually solving or slaying anything, the ones who take Tiger tanks to fight cave-dwellers, or who bribe the tech to open a backdoor to level 36 then wait to ambush you with a pawnshop-purchased Nuke-A-Mega-Power-Wand that would make Lord Voldemort proud. You can only imagine the horror on the too-beautiful face of #my6y* when my submission tool bent her into full bondage posture and flipped her over. Ooo baby!

Yes, I used her real tag. That’s so you can contact her and tell her what a pussy she is. Unlike a true online warrior who would have demanded a rematch, she ran to her rich daddy and got him to bribe, I mean lobby, Senator Pokesnout to pass the Artificial Justice Law. My creative programs became Exhibits A thru H for artificial abuse and thought crimes.

I confess I may have been a little arrogant myself. While I played with #my6y*‘s pneumatic avatar, I hacked her friends and made them watch. Okay, so I programmed them to jump up and down, clap, and shout encouragement.

The new law is crazy. What is virtual? The Artificial Justice Law is pretty vague on that point. Are crayon trees virtual trees and finger-painted houses artificial? Looking at naughty pictures of Elmer Fudd carries the same penalty as sexual assault. If your daughter draws stick figures, make sure she puts pants on them. And your five-year-old boy should know that the alphabet building block with the “L” on one face looks like an automatic, high-powered, .45 caliber, assault pistol that will turn him into a school-clearing serial killer.

Ahh, I feel so much better. It’s still a few hours to midnight, so I’m going to play every game I have that’s on the forbidden list. Then I’ll work on my virtual stealth program so I can get around their Artificial Justice Law.

Catch you later in my XXX virtual dungeon.

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Not Alone (Exactly)

“May the pollen of cognition quicken the carpels of your mind, and may your roots forever find nutrients.”

Half awake, I stared at the message on the console then sat upright. I scratched the stubble on my chin and crossed out the log entry where I attributed the incoming signal to a wobbling pulsar. My Associate’s Degree put me at the bottom of the food chain, alone on the night shift.

I kept watching, and SETI’s decryption gear kept chugging. One word, a long pause, another word, another pause, sentences slowly formed and crossed the monitor. The SETI equipment had been a joke, something the astrophysics lab had had to accept to get funding.

While I waited for the message to end, I grabbed a cup of coffee. It tasted like a fine slurry of asphalt and diesel fuel, scalding my lips. I’d left the pot boiling.

The translation took half an hour. I marked the time and the celestial coordinates. The signal repeated seven times.

It suddenly hit me what I had. “Oh, my God,” I mouthed. My next thought was Janis playing a nasty trick. “Okay, she got me.” Hoping to catch Janis giggling, I jerked my head quickly up and about. The station was silent except for the cooling fan in the console.

Barely able to breath, I magnified the star map in the area of the signal. Then I zoomed in until the directional cross hairs centered over Clio 16877, a red dwarf star in the Cancer constellation near the open star cluster, M44. The exoplanet database listed one planet orbiting so close that no reliable data had been captured.

So, this is it, and I am here, the only one on duty to receive the first extraterrestrial contact. I savored my moment. No need to rush. I would send out an alert before the morning shift arrived. Despite all the talk about team effort, I wanted all the credit for myself. Anyone would do the same.

There was certainly no rush from the other end. Clio 16877 was four thousand light years away. That meant the aliens had sent the message before Moses parted the Red Sea. A return message would take as long, plus time to craft something suitably inane to not offend anyone. The aliens had sent gifts, too, and we would be expected to reciprocate. Not my problem.

I refilled my cup with molten sludge and propped my feet on the console. After the opening wish about pollinating my carpels the message continued:

 

Dwellers of Soil,

Greetings from Evergreen. We hope this message reaches you in time. Failing to hear from you, we fear the worst. Recent analysis indicates that your planet faces serious atmospheric pollution, including a dangerously high concentration of free oxygen. To restore the correct balance, we’ve sent star-powered satellites into your atmosphere to manufacture high volumes of carbon dioxide. These will also help you restore Soil to the correct hothouse temperature.

A similar issue became critical on Evergreen recently with the evolution of an aggressive species. These evil Vegans devour us and are spreading across our world. Not satisfied with pillaging our natural resources, Vegans have begun raising and eating our young, regarding only their nutrient value and not their intelligence.

Independent of starlight and soil nutrients, these rootless Vegans move from forest and field to jungles, grasslands, and seas. At the rate they are progressing, we fear these beings will eliminate all sentient vegetation long before you can come to our assistance.

In hopes that you may survive our fate, we pass along the great wonders of our technology and culture.

Yours in root and branch,

Evergreen

 

The gifts from Evergreen depressed me as much as their message. Petal loss was not a major problem for humans, and I hadn’t noticed any droop in my stamen. Their solution for high levels of oxygen would cause immediate panic on Earth.

Still there was hope. I thought farmers might find their cure for canker useful. And their music sounded okay, like someone tuning a didgeridoo. Maybe we could send them some Willy Nelson or yodeling. But on second thought, a Hopi rain dance might be more appropriate.

I decided to leave these problems for the day shift.

The Child Has Good Instincts

“She has sad eyes,” the four-year-old girl said, tapping Terrell’s crossed knee and watching the creature on the examining table. “Can I show her my dog?”

She was the beetle Professor Terrell brought back from his travels. The shiny black Madagascar beetle tipped the scale at 176 pounds. Her six splayed legs drooped over the table edges. The beetle’s compound, black eyes glistened under the lamps. Smaller simple eyes glinted along its dark-bristled forehead.

Without lifting his eyes, Terrell nodded and pointed an index finger from the touchpad.

Little Jenny dashed to the lab table, carrying a squirming golden retriever puppy in her arms. “Want to play with Chloe?” she asked. She offered the puppy to the dark, horn-ridged creature. Terrell noted the time and turned on the recorder.

The beetle touched the sniffing puppy two or three times with its antennae then extended a clawed forward leg. Chloe leaned into the outstretched claw, stretching to better feel the saw-toothed edge comb across her back and down her rump and tail.

Jenny laughed and said, “Chloe likes that.” She sidled up close to stroke her dog’s head and look into the beetle’s eye. “Can you talk, Mister Beetle?”

The beetle ratcheted a few squeaks.

“It’s okay if you can’t. Mommy says I talk enough for two people. I talk to Chloe all the time, and she never says anything. Some of my stuffed toys talk, but you have to squeeze them.”

“Aaaaa,” Jenny’s mother screamed and raced into the room. “Jenny, don’t.” She snatched up her little girl then backpedaled, keeping her eyes on the beetle. The beetle arched one antenna in her direction. Chloe curled tight and closed her eyes as the beetle continued smoothing and stroking her coat.

The mother screamed her outrage at Professor Terrell. “How could you let such a thing happen? Put my precious little Jenny in such terrible danger?” The professor shrugged and made another note. “I’m calling the police. I’ll have you investigated for child endangerment.”

She looked down at Jenny, nearly crushed in her tight-wrapped arms. “Are you okay, my darling? Did that nasty, nasty thing harm you? Oh, when I think … oh my, what it might have done, killed you, eaten you.”

She pressed the back of her hand to her lowered face then glared at Terrell. Waving to the beetle, she said, “We don’t know anything about this, this awful thing.”

“We know it likes Chloe, and it likes me,” said Jenny, wide-eyed and smiling. “Mommy, could you get me one? Please? It’s very sweet.”

Her mother winced, baring her teeth. Jenny wiggled free and ran to the beetle, handing it the fuzz-stuck, lime lollipop from her pocket.

Professor Terrell made a note. “Observation: the child has good instincts as does the dog. Unlike the adult subject, they appraised the situation with open minds.”

Never Leave Me

“What color are my eyes?” she asked. Chrissy’s eyes were closed. She tucked her blue chiffon dress and sat across from Josh in the white, garden swing.

Josh exited the news display and looked up. “What color do you want them to be?”

“I asked first,” she said then bit her lip, her laced fingers clenched in her lap. Raven hair framed her pale, pretty face and curled softly under her chin.

The spring day was sunny, blue, and breezy. Multi-colored flowers danced in the garden and along the paths, spreading their fragrance with each gust. Splashing water laughed in the pedestal fountain. A red-throated skink jag-walked from a cluster of blue phlox, glanced about then skittered away.

“Your doe eyes are soft brown and beautiful, my love,” Josh said.

“Then it is me,” Chrissy said. She opened her eyes, her gaze dropping. “Now you’re going to tell me they’ve always been brown.” Their eyes came together.

Josh restrained a sigh and leaned forward. “What’s the matter, dear?”

“I remember my eyes being blue,” she said. “If they’ve always been brown, my mind must be going. And you, Josh, you’re getting older while I look the same … except for having brown eyes. I don’t mind looking younger, but I want us to age together. I feel out of place, like I don’t belong here.”

“I love the dress you’re wearing.” Josh changed the subject.

“Thank you. It was laid out on the bed when I woke up.”

A call came from the hedge gate. “Joshua, Chrissy, anybody home?”

“Here by the garden swing,” Josh said. Jordan, Josh’s sister, appeared. She nodded up and strode toward them.

“Such a beautiful day,” Jordan said. Josh smiled his agreement.

Chrissy closed her eyes. “Jordan, what color are my eyes?”

Startled, Chrissy glanced at Josh and saw him mouth, “Brown.”

“Have you changed your eye color?” Jordan asked. “Last I recall they were a beautiful brown. Did you get contacts? Show me.”

Chrissy opened her downcast, brown eyes. “Can I get you something cool to drink?” she asked.

“Iced tea, lemon, not sweet,” Jordan said. Chrissy slid off the swing and slumped to the patio service counter.

“Sorry, Josh,” Jordan whispered to his ear. “I remember she said she wanted brown eyes.”

“She’s upset about the difference in our ages, too,” Josh said. “Of course, our ages are different. It’s been ten years.” Jordan squeezed her brother’s neck and kissed the side of his head.

“No matter what I do, I can’t make her happy,” he said, bringing his folded hands to his forehead. “I don’t think I can handle another suicide … even one day without her … I just can’t.”

Jordan rolled her lips in then wrapped both arms around her brother’s head. “You’ll start again?”

“I have no choice.” Josh kept his voice low. “Once depression sets in, she goes quickly.”

Chrissy returned with a tall glass of tea and handed it to Jordan. She forced a straight-lipped smile then pulled the garden swing under her and kicked gently to start its motion.

“Thank you,” Jordan said, lifting her eyes and brows toward Chrissy. “I stopped by to ask if you’d like to go with me to the craft fair. It starts in the park this afternoon and runs all weekend. We could go tomorrow, if you prefer.” She tilted her head.

“Yes, maybe tomorrow,” Chrissy said. “It’s warm and I’m a little tired. I think I’ll go lie down.” She rose and flashed the same flat smile as she left.

“Check with you tomorrow,” Jordan said, keeping her tone light. She touched Josh’s sleeve then headed for the hedge gate.

Josh found Chrissy reclined on the sofa, shoulders back, eyes closed, breathing deeply. “Are you upset,” he asked. She pursed her lips. A tear rolled from the corner of her eye down across her temple.

“Let me help,” he said, reaching and kneading the back of her neck. Chrissy rocked her head forward. He pressed her second cervical vertebra then the first vertebra twice, completing the code. Chrissy’s lips and eyelids parted slightly, and she went limp.

Josh carried her to the back room and down the steps. He laid her gently on a high, gray, soapstone table. Tenderly he removed her blue chiffon dress, her shoes and stockings, her underwear, earrings, bracelet, and sapphire, pendant necklace. He moved her body to a tub-sized, glass tank and opened the fill valves. He checked the cell assembly and flow tracks then opened the additive manufacturing schematic. He replicated the last design pattern and advanced the model number to 344. He then reset the eye color to bluish gray and tweaked up the dopamine receptors. Before pressing restart, he added ten years, composed a script to cover the lost time, and erased the memory of today. A dozen laser tools and suction pipes, guided by cell-recognition software, swung into place.

Josh couldn’t watch. He knew Chrissy’s cells were being removed, reprogrammed, and reset—the recycled cells from the body he’d claimed after her suicide. He wanted her back with all the joy she had when they’d first met.

 

Chrissy tucked her blue chiffon dress and slid into the garden swing.

Sitting opposite her, Josh closed the news projection, sat up, and smiled. “How about going to the craft fair with Jordan this afternoon?” he asked.

“That’d be fun,” Chrissy said. She leaned forward and kissed him.

“I love that dress you’re wearing,” Josh said.

Chrissy smiled. “I haven’t worn this dress in years, but it was laid out on the bed when I woke. You set it out for me, didn’t you? I know we’re aging, but you still prefer me dressing young.”

He flashed his best who-me smile. “It looks great on you.”

Remember Me?

A wave crashed and rushed up the sand-packed beach, sending me backpedaling in my worn canvas deck shoes. The late-morning mist moistened my face as I followed the receding wave back down the slope. Streams of bubbles in slow-draining depressions pointed where sea creatures were buried, clams and crabs, fun to play with when I was a kid.

The high tide left dimples in the sand and debris—half-buried shells, the upturned carapace of a horseshoe crab, driftwood, the base of a broken, brown bottle, its edges grayed and smoothed dull by the waves. Strands of seaweed, clinging with shell life, swept up and back with the waves like green, soaked banners. A gusty breeze scented the air with whiffs of the organic, salty sea. A screeching tern tilted its wings and forked tail to the wind and touched down just long enough to overturn an empty clamshell.

Down the beach, my uncle’s piling-mounted house was a gray and tan outline in the spray-driven mist. My uncle had died last month, and we were putting his house on the market. This might be my last visit. The porch light went off, so I knew Janet was awake. She’d said she wanted to join me to watch the sunrise, but the sun had already climbed and shed its morning orange and red.

Back at the blanket, I shook the coffee thermos. Hearing nothing, I unscrewed the cap, tipped the thermos, and caught three brown drops in the plastic cup. Perhaps Janet would think to bring more. I set the thermos on the sandy blanket beside an unused, maroon, ceramic cup.

“Mr. Drake, hello,” a small voice cried. A boy six or seven, standing ankle-deep in the surf, waved his clam trowel then broke into a run up the beach toward me. He wore bright blue, boxer-style swim trunks and a yellow, Cub Scout t-shirt emblazoned with a blue wolf badge. I didn’t recognize him, but he knew my name. He must be mistaking me for my uncle, I thought.

As he got closer, I saw the trowel he pumped in one hand had flecks of rust, and his other hand held a red plastic pail. They looked like the trowel and pail I played with when I’d visited here. Perhaps the boy had borrowed them from my uncle.

“Mr. Drake, Sir,” the boy stopped, huffing, and craned his neck up to look at me, “Wanna see what I found?” His bare toes flexed nervously in the sand.

“Sure, young man,” I said, doubling my legs to crouch and peer into the small pail he tipped toward me.

“This one’s my favorite,” said the boy, handing me a concave shard glistening with blue, iridescent mother-of-pearl. “I’ll give it to my mom,” he said. “This one’s nice, too, almost perfect.” It was a salmon-pink sand dollar over four inches across.

A small sand crab tried to bury itself in the sand at the bottom of the pail. “I just picked him up to look at him,” the boy said. “He’s scared, so I’ll put him back.”

The boy grabbed the scuttling crab, set the pail down, and ran to the water’s edge. I shook sand off a corner of my blanket and sat, waiting for his return. A pair of terns took an interest in the pail, hovering and dipping, rocking in the breeze, so I pulled it onto the blanket. “Craw,” one protested, and they both climbed off with the next gust.

I hadn’t seen anyone on the beach that morning and didn’t expect anyone except Janet. The boy seemed to appear out of nowhere. I watched him set the crab down and rush back.

“I started searching for shells over there,” the boy said, pointing. I followed his finger but couldn’t see anything. “By the pier and the old tower.” The boy squinted. “It’s really hard to see right now. My uncle said navy guys came to the tower to look for submarines. That was during the war. If they saw anything they had a boat with guns at the pier. I know you’ve been there.”

“Yes, I have,” I said, a little surprised at the boy’s certainty. “My uncle told me about the submarines, too. But they took the pier away years ago, and all that’s left of the tower is the foundation.”

The boy nodded quickly. “But I remember when they were there. It was a good place to hunt for crabs and stuff like that.” I smiled, excusing his confusion. The tower and pier were gone years before the boy was born. He must have heard stories and imagined the rest.

“I suppose there aren’t submarines anymore,” the boy said quietly and lowered his still pointing finger. He kicked sand back with his foot then made a groove in it with his toe.

“The Navy sold that land,” I said, “and I heard the new owner wants to put up a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and some sort of go-kart track, maybe a paint ball arena, too.”

The boy’s eyes lit up. “Will you bring your kids to play?”

“My wife and I don’t have children,” I said.

“You should get to it,” the boy said, again surprising me. I was sure he was thinking about friends to play with.

“Maybe we should,” I said then asked. “Do you live around here? You seem to know my uncle.”

“I’m just visiting, like you, and staying with my uncle … he’s a very nice man, but he gets kinda grumpy. My mom says it’s ‘cause he got old. I don’t want to get old if it means I have to get grumpy and can’t go out to play. What good is it? I know if he played it would cheer him up, but my mom says he won’t do it. All he thinks about is busyness.”

“You mean business?”

“Yes,” the boy said, then looked seriously at the sun. “I have to go.”

“Will you be back tomorrow?” I asked.

“Yes,” he ran, turned his head, and called back. “But if I come tomorrow you might not recognize me. I’d like it if you did. Maybe we could look for shells an’ stuff.”

“Roy,” Janet’s voice called behind me. “Sorry I’m late. Your sister was on the phone, and we got talking.” She held out a fresh thermos. “Your sister wants to know if you’ve changed your mind about selling your uncle’s place.”

“I was just talking—” I started to point but, looking up the beach, couldn’t see the boy. Rushing waves swept over the last of his footsteps. “A local boy was just here playing in the surf.”

“A neighbor?”

“I think so. His family might have a place up here. He thought I should know him, but I think he was confusing me with my uncle. The boy said I’d see him tomorrow but might not recognize him. Very curious.”

“What did he look like?”

“Your average, pale, city boy, seven years old, active blue eyes, talkative, precocious. He wore a yellow Cub Scout shirt just like I wore.”

“Bright blue, boxer trunks, bare feet?” Janet asked. “Shock of rumpled brown hair … carried a rusty shovel and a red pail?

“A rusty trowel. Yes.”

“You might still know him.”

She led me back to the house and up to the bedroom where I stayed when I’d last visited my uncle. The room hadn’t changed. There was the wood-framed, single bed with the hand-stitched, cowboy-themed quilt, ruffled, blue-checked curtains framing the one window, and a quaint, varnished, knotty pine dresser. On the wall above the dresser was my picture when I was seven, standing on the beach in my Cub Scout shirt and waving a rusty trowel. The ink-scribbled inscription read, “Remember me and our good times. Your Uncle Al.”

Janet squeezed my hand. “You still have a good imagination.” I started to speak, but my jaw just dropped.

Janet squeezed my hand again. “I’m sorry. I told your sister before I told you. I wanted it to be a surprise.” She looked up into my eyes. I knew the look.

“A baby?” I asked. She nodded, and we both smiled.

“I got the message,” I said to the boy in the picture. “I’ll tell my sister we’ve decided keep the house. Our kids should have a chance to play here, too.”

Lord of the Towels

TWEET! “Okay, guys. Hit the showers.” Coach Felbrook circled a raised fist high then pointed to the locker room. Forty boys on East Junior High’s football team let out a yell, unsnapped helmet chinstraps, and headed off the grassy field.

Felbrook jogged behind them, shouting. “Dak, good work on those cuts. Yogi, keep working on power pulls … the defense is still playin’ off your blocks. And hey, Toby … grab the ball cart.” Felbrook caught the eye of the last boy still sitting on the bench and pointed far up the field.

Toby Eagleton jumped up. The hot sun and muscle sweat felt good as he dashed 80 yards to fetch the cart. He imagined running for a touchdown, threw himself across the goal, and rolled to his back, pumping his fists in the air. The new mown grass smelled delicious.

“Toby,” the coach shouted, motioning him to hurry.

Toby scooped up three loose footballs, tossed them into the wheeled cart and spun it back to the field house. Felbrook stood at the entrance. “Water bottles. Don’t forget the water bottles and the cooler.”

Toby swung wide up the sideline, snagged eight plastic bottles off the turf, tumbled them into the cooler, and slid the cooler under the ball cart. Reaching the field house, he pushed the cart into the storage closet. He clanged the metal door shut, dropped the latch, and snapped the padlock.

The blue and black tiled locker room reeked of boy sweat and grass stains, and the even stronger scents of chlorine and mildew from the pool next door. As Toby walked in, the last players were spinning off shower spigots and stepping past him to grab towels. Steam billowing from the showers filled the locker room.

“Good effort out there guys. Toby, lookin’ real good.” Felbrook patted his shoulder. “Damn! Hey, you guys, pick up those towels. You raised in a barn?” No one paid him any attention. “Toby, can you make sure all these towels get into the bin. Thanks.”

“But Coach, I didn’t play. I sat on the bench all practice.”

“You need to learn the system, Toby. Watch the other boys. Your chance will come.”

Toby looked straight up at the neon ceiling lights. “Coach, maybe I could walk through some drills, huh? Maybe run a few practice plays?”

“Great spirit, Toby. Love that attitude.” Felbrook checked his wristwatch. “Sorry, gotta split, teaching a hygiene class in two minutes.” He pulled a gray letter jacket with the bulldog team logo over his dress shirt, and ducked out into the hallway.

Toby untied his cleated shoes then stripped off his jersey and pants. Sun-sitting sweat had a fouler stink than clean workout sweat. His clothing bore no green streaks or clumps of brown. Toby dropped his uniform in his locker and padded barefoot across the wet floor to the showers. Only a few boys remained, combing their hair and tying shoes.

Toby passed a full-length mirror and paused to scowl at his skinny nakedness: five-foot-five, 116 pounds, and red hair hanging like a fruit bowl. His coat-hanger shoulders rounded onto his concave chest. His stick arms and knobby knees reminded him of chicken bones. Some football player. He remembered his Mom saying, “You’ll get your growth spurt, Toby … you’re just late blooming. Just wait. It’ll come.”

“Yah Mom, I’m waiting, still waiting.” He started to punch a locker door but thought better and stepped into the gang shower. He turned the spigot handle, felt the rush of hot water, and gathered liquid soap from the dispenser.

SLAM! Came the sound of a metal door. Someone had crashed into the locker area. Toby recognized the muffled laughter and whispers. No one else sounded like Dak Jackson and Yogi Grancourt. Then came a squeal and the clickety-click of casters as the towel bin accelerated across the tiled floor. The locker room door slammed again. Toby turned off the water and walked out to the towel shelf. Nothing.

“Hey, you guys take the last towel? Hey, I’m still here.” Toby glanced at his locker hanging open and empty. Spinning, he checked the room … no clothes … no towels … no towel bin. “Damn you guys … Yogi? Dak? That you?” He slumped, dropped his chin to his chest then went to gather paper from the toilet stalls to dry off.

Pausing, he looked up and thrust his arms toward the neon ceiling lights. “God of towels, where are you? Why have you forsaken me?”

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping. Warmth wrapped Toby’s hips and tucked a fold at his waist. What? He dropped his hands to find a towel wrapped about him. Not a threadbare gym towel, but luxurious, the brightest white towel, the kind bikini babes rub on themselves in fancy resort movies.

“Toby, me lad. I oonderstand you haff need for a towel?” The Irish brogue was high and lilting. Before him on the dank tiles, stood a figure a head shorter then he. It was pale with pointed nose and ears, a scruff of unruly black hair, and laughing eyes over angular, high cheekbones.

“Who are you?” Toby asked, stepping back.

“For certain, I am the very god you beckoned, the god of towels, here to ease your pain.” The fellow danced two quick steps then bowed, thrusting one leg forward and dropping one arm low.

“I didn’t call you,” Toby objected, gesturing his hands out. “What kind of god is a god of towels anyway? What can you do?”

“Well, for starters, you might haff noticed, I can coover oop your privates.”

“Okay, that’s good … I appreciate that. Thank you. I gotta go, I have class in, ahhh, six minutes.” Toby ran to the door and peered into the hallway. No clothes no towel bin. Opposite the boy’s gym he saw Sheila Palo leaving the girl’s gym, her books clasped tightly against her white, junior varsity cheerleader sweater.

“Pssst, Sheila?” Toby slid out the door to the recess from the hallway. Sheila covered her chin-dropped mouth.

“Toby? How come—?”

Toby waved her quiet. “The boy’s towel cart, is it in the girl’s gym? Maybe some clothes and shoes are on it? Please.” He gestured to his condition.

Sheila set her books down in the hall and returned a second later with the cart piled high with the last of the fresh towels, a pair of blue jeans and undershorts, a sweatshirt, tennis shoes and socks, and his sweaty football uniform.

“Thank you, me love,” Toby let that slip. Damn. She can’t know how I feel about her. He’d never talked to Sheila, but right now he was beyond blushing. Avoiding her gaze, he grabbed the cart and pulled it back to the locker room.

Toby hustled into his pants and shirt.

The elfin figure reappeared. “Sooo, perhaps I’m thinkin’, we haff more business.”

“No thank you, little guy. The towel was great. That’s all I need.” Toby looked hard at his new acquaintance. “What’s your name? I mean in case I ever need another towel.”

“That’d be Sean at your service, Master Toby.” Sean bowed low again.

“Just Toby is fine. No need to be formal.” Sitting on a bench, Toby slid socks onto his feet still damp from the wet tiles and began twisting on his tennis shoes.

“Not formal a’tall, Master Toby. I’m here to serve you, in all your travails, all life long.”

“To serve ME? How did I get so lucky?” Toby tied his shoes.

“You invoked the gods for the first taim and specifically mentioned me. The god of towels, you said … that would be meself.” Another quick bow.

“Great … other people get guardian angels … I get the god of towels?”

“Don’t be so disparaging, Master Toby. I can be a great blessing to you.”

“I think I’d prefer a genie, a great and powerful genie, one like Aladdin had. You know … like the genie of the lamp.” Toby laced his fingers around one knee, pulled it toward his chest, and rocked back.

“Genie of what lamp?” Sean stared blankly.

The Arabian Nights … you know. Aladdin finds a lamp, there’s a genie inside, it gives him a whole bunch of wishes.”

“That woos a good story … made oop you know. But it didn’t happen.

“Who made it oop … up?”

“The girl who needed a good story every night so she wouldn’t be killed the next morning. Worked that trick a thousand taimes she did. Hard to blame her, but it woos all a lie. I guess she didn’t think a “god of carpets” story was exciting enoof.

“God of carpets? … Give me a break.”

“Oh, so your so smart … well, Master Toby, let me tell you the real story.” Sean jumped onto the bench and dropped to sit cross-legged. “Aladdin had a carpet … do you knoow that mooch?”

“A flying carpet, of course. I liked that. Do you have a flying towel?”

“Don’t be gettin’ cheeky, and don’t be gettin’ ahead of me story. Well … wouldn’t you know, this Aladdin fellow, he had a good head for business. When the god of carpets came to him, Aladdin used his powers to become the richest carpet merchant from Samarkand to Bukhara. That’s hoo he got the princess, the palace, caravans and fine horses, all that fancy stoof. There never woos any genie of any silly lamp.”

“And a flying carpet? Did he get a flying carpet?” Toby persisted.

“Carpets haff certain powers … towels haff powers, too.”

“Thanks, I’ll call when I need you.”

Toby jumped up and ran for the door. By the hall clock he was fifteen minutes late. He broke into a run. Two corridors later, he slowed at the door to Miss Brown’s English class and, breathing hard, slinked in and around the side to the back.

The room went silent as all heads followed him. Miss Brown made a note in her grade book, took a sip from a red and white plastic Coca-Cola cup then continued. “What makes Leaves of Grass so compelling for me is that it was self published. Whitman spent all his money to get this collection out.” She gestured with the English book, and it struck and overturned the cup. Coke and ice spilled across her desk, papers, and grade book. “My! Oh, my!” She jumped aside startled by the spreading damage.

SHHHHLIIIK! It was the sound of a towel snapping.

A white, luxurious towel shot from the back of the room and up along the ceiling, to drop and neatly cover the spill, staunching the flow. Class chatter died. Miss Brown stared at her desk

Toby strode sheepishly to the front. Lifting the towel revealed a bone-dry desk and paperwork unblemished by caramel-colored stain.

“I’m sorry I was late Miss Brown,” he said. “I take care of the gym towels. I guess I forgot to leave this one behind.”

“That’s fine, Toby.” She whispered, eyes still wide. “Thank you. I-I’ll mark you present.” Miss Brown lifted a corner of the towel, noting its size and feeling its plush texture.

Walking home after school, towel in hand, Toby found Sean matching his stride. “Thank you for your help today,” he said and turned to Sean. “I’d like to reconsider your offer. I think we can do business.”

“That’d be excellent, Master Toby. And you are perfectly welcome. For sure we will haff many adventures.

Next morning before school, Toby rummaged through his brother’s fantasy game tokens and pulled out the Broach of Enchantment. The cardboard stapled to the cellophane wrapper showed it fastening the cape of a fantasy hero.

Toby’s cape that morning was a plush white towel of unusual quality and brightness. On the way to school he thought of Dak and Yogi … and of course, Sheila.

Second Chance

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the skyyy,” Kip sang, rocking his shoulders, “… where ahhm gonna go when I diiie.” He never liked the recording until his son sent it to celebrate his second chance—Kip’s sentence being commuted from twenty-five years in prison to five years collecting trash in space.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” He sang, scratched two fingers on the four-day stubble under his chin, and gazed at the wraparound display. Stars stood bright and unblinking in the black. A sliver of moon glowed like a white magnolia petal floating on a midnight pond. He called up the vector lines for incoming space debris. Nothing close to his position was larger than a pinky nail clipping.

Hearing his echo in the hollow operations chamber, Kip laughed then shouted, “… gonna go to the place that’s the best … well that sure as hell ain’t here.” He’d learned his lesson. That’s what he told his son. Next time he’d do different.

He’d volunteered for this, been tested, and done well. Smart was never his problem—least not technical smart. He’d done well in the training, too, not like he was competing against real astronauts. Only convicts got these jobs.

But technically, Kip was an astronaut. He hoped his new skills might translate to something better when he got out. Four more years, he winced. The moniker they gave him, ‘space junkie’, described how he felt—not much improvement over his juvenile sentence ten years ago, six-months collecting bottles, cans, and diapers tossed out on route 41 heading north out of Chicago.

It was all politics. He was getting rehab and a second chance. News feeds never mentioned the state getting money for sending him up, or the fact that no insurance for convicts meant he was cheaper than a machine or a real astronaut.

But running a space station was big responsibility, even if it was a glorified trash compactor. His orbit was the highest of any space junkie, three thousand miles above geosynchronous—which meant out of the money. Pulling in a dead geosynchronous satellite could net him a cool hundred grand plus an insurance bonus. Ease his return to civilian life. All he’d collected out here was busted parts and pieces: access panels, nozzles, machine screws, paint chips, maybe a sheet of silicon off a solar panel. Last year’s big find.

3033a

A quick review of the monitors showed everything in order. His three electro-magnetically formed, nano-fiber trawling nets bellied out like sails on a square-rigged ship. The nitinol talon he’d use if the nets ever snagged anything bigger than a baseball was charged and tucked in its pod.

“Oh, Commander,” the ever-sweet auto-service used the address he’d programmed, “one of your favorite fans wants to contact you.” It was probably Jolene. Kip expected her call. He thought he’d never want to hear from the bitch again, but the chirpy auto-service voice was wearing on him. He paused the music.

“Hey there, baby,” he said. Jolene’s face popped up: blue eye shadow over squinty eyes, ruby-painted lips, and chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. The new crop of lines on her face told him she’d jacked her drug dose.

“Hello yourself, Kipper,” she said, smiling mischief. Kip knew what was coming. “Did you like those sweet goodies I sent in your last supply run?”

“Wasn’t sure how sweet they was. Those Eroti-pop groans yours?”

“Every lick’s a reminder of what you’re missin’ back home.”

“So who’d you fuck makin’ the Eroti-pop recordings?”

“So many I forgot. Once you cleared out, they was linin’ up.” She scowled then flipped her hand and smiled. “Nah, jus’ kiddin’, nobody special. Dickey Ray, he come round last week and brung my regular stuff. Then he stuck round for his usual payment.”

Kip slow tapped the console dash with his fist but kept a tight smile over his clenched teeth. It was Dickey Ray got him here in the first place—him sniffin’ round Jolene and gettin’ into her panties.

Most men knew to keep away from Kip and what was his. He walked around with a hunched swagger and a hard look, a tight-wound spring, set to strike whatever touched him: a hand, a word, any slighting glance or gesture. But Dickey Ray wanted a slice. Kip remembered the morning he got home early from work. Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Sneaking in quiet-like, he heard Jolene in the back, groaning to the steady squeak of bedsprings. That sent him for the ball bat.

In the monitor image Jolene jutted and pooched her lips like she was blowing a trumpet. “Oooo, baby. What’d you expect I’d be crossin’ my legs and keep on missin’ you? I got my needs. Dickey Ray got his. He givin’ me discounts on all my stuff.”

“Thanks for the Eroti-pops.” Kip punched disconnect. His tattoo caught his attention, a blue and red cobra sliding down his arm to a fanged face on his hand. Jolene said it looked like a sock puppet.

“FUCK.” Kip hammered the console. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. How’d I ever let that nasty bitch get to me?” He shook his head like a shiver.

“Oh, Commander,” the auto-service crooned, “something in our net requires your attention … No, it’s gone now. Sorry to disturb you.”

Happy for the distraction, Kip opened the stats window. One of the trawl net tethers reported uneven stress, but the problem had apparently self-corrected. He magnified that area of the net and rechecked the tethers.

The sensors registered no discrepancies and nothing in the net, but there was a meter-wide hole in its center, clean and round as if cut by a laser. What could have made such a hole, and why wasn’t it registering? Kip slacked the tethers on the left side of the net, and the hole slid left. It hadn’t grown or stretched, and the previously holed area appeared healed.

If nothing was in the net, it was a substantial nothing. What … an alien spacecraft? … more likely a secret defense satellite. What had he screwed up now … or found that he shouldn’t? He rechecked the vector scans and history logs. Nothing. Maybe it was a lost satellite. Maybe he’d get a bounty for finding it.

That did it. He couldn’t let it slip away. He considered using the talon gripper, but it was too clumsy, so he collapsed the trawl net and recalled it to the trash-sorting bay.

When Kip entered the bay, he did a double take. The hole appeared to extend through the net and out into space, right through the pressure hull. In the opening he saw a field of stars, yet pressure and atmosphere in the bay remained normal.

On examining the hole from many angles, it appeared to be a sphere. Wherever Kip stood, the opening behind it looked directly into space, and previous holes in the net and hull vanished.

Perhaps it was a window? Kip leaned to peer through it, and it grabbed him.

 

The bay and space station disappeared along with the field of stars and all light. Floating in black with no sensation, Kip touched himself to make sure he still existed. His body parts remained in the right places, but he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. If there was any air, it was not moving and had no discernible temperature.

“Hey,” he shouted, but couldn’t be sure he’d made any sound.

Hair stood on his neck, back, and arms, and the sensation rolled across him like an electro-static wind. Violet appeared, shifted down the spectrum to red, then back half way until it blended to normal visible light. The background remained black. A floor formed under his feet.

“You are a human.” The low monotone voice came from a three-stilted bell jar. Kip wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question.

A second bell jar stilt-walked to join the first and said, “It is a human.”

“I’ve never seen one,” said the first. “What’s it doing on my watch?”

“Must have stumbled into a bubble.” A glow in the bell jar shifted to Kip. “Did you find a bubble?”

“What sort of bubble?” Kip asked.

“Left over from the great blending—a bubble that never became time-space,” said the second bell jar, obviously senior. “Some still float in the human universe. You are from Earth, right?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “I guess your bubble thing got caught in my net.”

The bell jars consulted then transformed in an eye-blink to tall, beautiful humans with flowing hair and complexions of glowing gold.

Wide-eyed, Kip whispered, “You’re angels. I reckon I must be dead.”

“We have been called angels.” The senior’s voice was now melodic and warm. “But you are neither dead nor alive. The great blending of time and space that allowed you and your universe to exist never happened here. This place, our forms and yours are temporary concepts to enable this communication.”

As Kip struggled for words, the first angel answered his unasked question. “Of course, you must return to time and space. Order must be restored.”

Kip felt relief but also saw his dreams of big money vanish. “Kin I keep that bubble? I got salvage rights.”

“It was an anomaly that has been corrected, said the senior angel. “Restoring it to you may cause another disturbance. We’ll send you back to exactly when and where you were before you found the bubble.”

Kip tried another approach. “I’m a might put out by this whole sich’ation. I figger it’s you two what done it, so it’s you two what needs to do some fixin’.”

The two angels looked at one another confused. “What would you require to bring you peace?” asked the senior angel.

“Would it perturb your great cosmic order if I was to go back to some other previous time…say back on Earth a couple years earlier?” Kip said. “There’s somethin’ I need to set right.”

“Free will is built into the human universe,” the senior angel said. “What you do or undo will alter your future, but it will not disturb the greater order.” Kip nodded and indicated the exact place and time he wanted to return.

 

Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Kip walked in quiet like before. The sound of bedsprings and Jolene moaning got his anger up. He remembered her taunting and clenched his fists. Like he told his boy, he’d learned his lesson. This was his second chance and he wasn’t going to screw it up. He slid the ball bat from the corner. This time he’d put his back into it.