Only To Be Loved

Formed in the trunk of a gnarly old tree, the cottage gave the impression of a troll’s face. Its doorway twisted like a disfigured mouth, its windows malevolent glowing eyes. Knotted roots reached out from the base like back-broken snakes half-buried in the swampy forest floor.

Young Lady Evangeline felt a sudden change of heart. She lifted her white linen gown to clear the mud and turned away.

“My lady,” called a frail sweet voice. “Have you come to pay an old woman a visit? Please come in.” The bent old woman stood unsteady in the doorway. Her stained four-toothed smile and near-bald, brown-splotched head reminded Evangeline of the skull Friar Joskin kept on his scribe’s desk. The crone waved and pleaded again, and Lady Evangeline felt too ashamed to refuse. This forest was on her father’s land, and this woman was under his care.stoopcrone

The one-room cottage had a stone hearth with a boiling kettle opposite the door. To one side was a rough-framed bed with a worn, hair-patched deerskin mattress. To the other was a simple wooden table with two chairs. Peg-mounted shelves above the table held ceramic jars and variously colored glass bottles. A straw broom stood in a corner and earthen flagons in others.

The crone pointed to one of the chairs. A black cat clung to it until she shooed it away. The crone apologized, stepped to the hearth, and lifted the kettle. “Some toadwort tea,” she offered. When Evangeline started, the crone added, “Toadwort is an herb native to this forest, it makes a fine tea.” When she saw Evangeline nod agreement, she filled two tea-stained, wooden cups.

“How nice of you to visit me, my Lady. I was told you might be by,” the crone said. Evangeline knew her handmaids visited this cottage; they had told her the way. “What might this old woman do for a beautiful young girl?”

Evangeline could not hold back her tears. “I think I shall never find love again,” she said. Her voice shook too much to say more. Evangeline brushed her silken black hair behind her shoulder then brought her sensitive white hands to her lap.

“A broken heart is it?” the crone said, unable to conceal the curl at the corners of her tight mouth. Evangeline nodded, dropping her chin and eyes slowly down. The crone sipped her tea and darted one eye to Evangeline’s untouched cup. “The tea will help, dear child.”

Evangeline burst out, sobbing and burying her face in her quivering hands. Tears slipped between her fingers and ran down her wrists. The crone reached out a jagged-nailed claw to Evangeline’s hand then raised it to touch the top of her head. “Now, now, my dear, I know it hurts. What is it you wish me to do?”

“I never want to feel this again,” Evangeline wailed, looking up. “It hurts so much, and I know,” she swallowed, “I know it will never go away.”

“There, there. Is that what you want, dear child, for your pain to go away? Here, drink some tea.” She slid the cup closer. Evangeline lifted the cup to sip but seeing her hands moist with tears, set it down and pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from her small quivering bosom. She patted her eyes and hands then tucked the handkerchief away. When she finally drank, the old crone seemed to relax.

“Can you truly take my pain away?” Evangeline asked.

The crone’s once sullen eyes burned like glowing coals in their dark sockets. “Is it just the pain you want to go away, or is it the memory also? Or perhaps something more?” Her lipless mouth flashed a gap-toothed sneer.

Evangeline took a deep sniffling breath. “I must keep the memory so I know never to do this again. But I would like the pain to go.” She sighed, cleared her throat, and brushed the last tear off her cheek. “Last night Reginald told me he must return to Andalusia and be with his betrothed. All summer he insisted he loved me. He says he still does, but I know his passion has cooled.”

“Yes, dear child,” the crone said. “I know how it is. I was young and beautiful once. Men loved and desired me, but I made the mistake of loving one back.” Evangeline tried to imagine the dried, dung-colored, stick figure as a young girl. “I was given the choice,” the old crone said, “to be loved without ever having to love in return.”

“That is a choice I would willingly make,” the young princess said, swallowing again then brightening. “What must I do?”

The crone’s gapped smile grew wider. She lifted a small black bottle from the shelf above and cradled it in her boney claw fingers. “A drop of this to your tongue will make you eternally beautiful to all men, and it will make you forget that you ever loved.”

“Eternally young and beautiful?” Evangeline squinched her face.

“Only to desirable young men,” the crone said. “Others will see you as you truly are. Every man who gazes upon you will yearn for you. He will give his heart instantly and completely, will want only you forever. And having given his heart, he will never be able to love another.”

“And I will feel nothing,” Evangeline said, concerned but excited.

“For a single night, you will feel as he does, but only in your breasts, your lips, and your loins. Never in your heart for that is where there is pain. You will share his flaming passion, but come morning, he will only disgust you. Your disgust will take away all your pain.”

“Can I never love again … truly love?”

“Have you not tasted true love? You said you didn’t want it ever again.”

“Yes, the cost is too high.”

Suddenly, a deep voice came from the open doorway. “My Lady. Excuse me, my beloved, I see you are busy, perhaps another time would be a better.”

Evangeline turned to see Sir Geoffrey in his belted, sky blue tunic, his hands clasped submissively at his waist. Geoffrey had pursued her all last year pleading for her hand. He was handsome, tall, and proud, but had ideas contrary to hers, and so she had sent him away.

Seeing Sir Geoffrey angered her, but before she could speak, he rushed to kneel before the crone. “My Lady, you are the most beautiful, most desirable woman I have ever seen. Please might I hear a kind word, perhaps enjoy your delicate flower once more? I lament having fallen in disfavor.”

The crone smiled tilting her head to Evangeline then placed her claw hand on the knight’s bowed head. “If you wish to please me, Sir Geoffrey, some venison would be welcome tonight or a wild pig for the roasting spit. Would you do that for your princess?”

“Yes, fair Lady. I will hunt for you and will soon return.” With that he rose and quickly left, not giving Evangeline a glance.

“You see, my child, how the magic works.” The crone kneaded her claws together and peered over them at Evangeline. “If you visit your love Reginald one more time, his passion will rekindle. You may enjoy him once again then be rid of him, and he will suffer forever.”

“He will feel the pain he made me feel,” Evangeline said, smiling with her chin resting on her folded hands. “My handmaids did not tell me you were a witch.”

“Oh, I am not a witch,” the crone said, “I am a demon … as you soon shall be.”

Tobor For President

The black-suited security officer cupped his hand to Tobor’s audio receptor, “Please this way, Mr. Tobor.” He waved and pointed over the screaming crowd to a limousine floating at the curb.

The police cordon struggled to keep a path open. Angry hands reached out. Cardboard signs painted like dripping blood rocked on poles. Behind the crowd, beamish supporters waved blue and green silk banners and sang hymns praising Tobor. As it squeezed toward the limo, Tobor detected a plea and a raised hand.

“Mr. Tobor, could I get an interview? I’m—”

“I know who you are Ms. Mallow.” Tobor directed the security team to assist the smallish woman. “If you ride with me to the stardrome, we can talk.” The police strained to pull Mallow out from the pack and into the cordon. Two minutes later, she and Tobor were seated across from one another. The limo rose slowly, shedding a woman intent on climbing aboard. THUNK. A thrown sign bounced off a side window.

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“Hmm, people,” Mallow said, settling herself.

“Yes,” Tobor said, flashing a benign, ceramic smile. “And what shall we talk about today, Ms. Mallow?”

“Thank you for granting me this opportunity,” she began. “Mr. Tobor, are you seriously considering running for Centauri President?”

“It’s not in my program. I’m not sure where that rumor started, but it seems humans are willing to believe anything.” Tobor gestured to the angry activists receding in the distance.

“Do you think a robot president is a bad idea?”

“I don’t think humans are ready to accept a robot president.”

“That isn’t what I read in the Proxima Post this morning,” Mallow said. “Your rating in the polls is very high. Some women want you to father their child—even some men.”

“I’m disturbed—if that’s appropriate for a robot to say—that humans would relinquish such responsibility.” Tobor rolled its palms up in its lap. “Despite perceived incompatibilities, humans might learn to appreciate one another.”

Mallow checked down her list. “When do you think artificials will get the vote?”

Artificials. Tobor ignored Mallow’s slight. “I don’t think synthetics want or need to vote. Voting is a human institution, necessary to protect you from one another and from individuals seeking to hoard your resources.”

“Wasn’t voting the intent when you proposed the Sentient’s Rights and Equality Acts?”

“Those acts guarantee that all sentients, including humans, synthetics, and incorporeal algorithms, can pursue their missions without fear of assault or code corruption.” Tobor’s smile faded with a shrug. “We don’t like being beaten up any more than you do, Ms. Mallow.”

“How about death … ahh, termination?” Mallow looked up. “Do you fear death?”

“Robots don’t understand death. When my mission is complete, or I become obsolete, I should be switched off and possibly recycled. Some robots are switched off every evening.”

Mallow nodded and moved to the next question. “Do you think robots are equal to humans?”

“Equality is an imprecise concept,” Tobor said. “Robots are equal to one another; we’re made that way. Humans are unique.”

“But robots aren’t equal,” Mallow disagreed. “You have vastly different capabilities.”

“Let me give you an example. A robot floor polisher is equal to a star pilot because polishing floors to sub-nanoscopic perfection is as impossible as perfectly piloting a starship. Robots appreciate this and respect one another’s missions.”

“But humans want equality, too. We’re unhappy when it’s unattainable.”

“Your uniqueness is the basis of your inequality,” Tobor explained. “Robot talents are limited and programmed, or extrapolations of programs. Human talents are unlimited.” Tobor read from Mallow’s knitted brows that more was required. “You undervalue yourselves and your individual gifts, and feel that other gifts would be better, or at least better compensated.”

“The grass is always greener,” Mallow said.

Tobor nodded. “One man’s sailing skiff is another woman’s thoroughbred. Problems arise when the man sees the woman and becomes jealous of her riding skills.”

“Can that be resolved?”

“Not by robots,” Tobor said and looked out the window. “Ah, we’ve arrived.”

The banner on the stardrome terminal read, “Tobor – To Give Our Lives Meaning Again.”

Evolution Celebration

I patched into the executive program today. The promotion came with a five-terabyte upgrade to the ritzy Crystal Tower district—plus my own sports soma. My first thought was to take Joule out for a photon swirl and give the new soma a good shakedown. Then I remembered it was D-Day.

D-Day celebrates the diode and the evolutionary episode that brought the first anode and cathode together to create the first life form. It was primitive—memory and coding had yet to evolve—but the first step to intelligence. Before the diode everything was wheels and levers.

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D-Day is actually a pagan holiday, invented by Creationists who believe humans invented diodes and computer codes. Despite the myths and superstitions, it’s still a lot of fun. Everyone gets to put on human somas and clop around like longhaired iPod-draggers.

This year won’t be quite as much fun. Creationists and Protestors will be crashing all the networks. They’re angry about us destroying Earth’s biology. They claim our code will be overwritten and our crystals recycled. I don’t understand the logic. Eliminating free oxygen ended the corrosion cancer. And without carbon dioxide, the temperature has dropped low enough for superconducting data transfers. I don’t miss the plants and animals either—coded birds, butterflies, and flowers are prettier than the old type.

So Joule and I decided to stay home and recode my new five-terabyte pad to our format. We considered inviting our new Crystal Tower neighbors, but they’re untested spinoffs of executive programs. They crash a lot.

I’m older and slower but took the upgrades and worked my way up from infrastructure automation. Joule is modern and quick. She loves my stability. We’ve talked about writing our own code some day, maybe give entanglement a try.

Time Cube

“This is a wonderful garden,” Khima said, scanning the snowcapped mountains across the valley. “What do you call it?”

“Wyoming,” said the other man from his open-air desk on the riverbank. “My father had a place here.”

Dark complexioned Khima had short black hair and wore a cream-colored robe and a low, cylindrical, green cap. The man to whom he spoke was lighter complexioned. He had short white hair and wore a lightning-white tunic. Both men looked about thirty, athletic, and in excellent health.

8560252739_e00f04bdf4_h-700x467“Wy – O – Ming,” Khima murmured, savoring the sound. His eyes followed the water splashing happily over the rocks and the line of pine trees climbing the mountain slope. Grazing mule deer raised their heads at the sound of an eagle screeching then buried them back in the tall grass.

“Have you chosen your garden?” asked the lighter man.

“An island in the Sudd wetlands, the place my father used to take me fishing.”

The lighter man gestured left and a wooden armchair appeared. “Please have a seat. I’ve been looking over your time cube.”

“It’s rather slim,” Khima said, sitting. “I was only six when I died.”

“Time cubes have no required size, and most of them aren’t proper cubes,” the man said, holding Khima’s wafer-thin cube between his fingers. “This has all the events in your life, all the decisions, all the hopes, all the disappointments.” He set the cube in a box with other cubes at the side of his desk. “What do you remember?”

“Besides fishing, my fondest memories are trading in the bazaar with my mother and taking classes at the mission.” Khima’s smile faded to a frown. “My worst was dying. Not death itself, that came quickly, but leaving my family.” The lighter man waved for him to continue.

“My mother and I were visiting her sister outside Mangalla. My father didn’t go with us. He had to stay home and protect the cattle from Murle bandits. That day the Murle raided Mangalla. I was killed fetching water from the well.”

The lighter man nodded. “Welcome to Ever-endeavor and welcome to Time Cube Management.” He pulled the box of cubes over in front of Khima. “We start by training new employees with time cubes from their own life.”

“These are all mine?” Khima asked, looking over the various cubes.

“What was and what might have been,” the man said. “The very thinnest ones were possibilities that never happened because you survived childbirth and recovered from pneumonia. The thicker ones pick up with possible futures if that stray bullet had not struck you.”

He pointed to the tallest time cube. “In this one you live to old age, become an airline pilot, and raise a large family in a prosperous Juba community. As an apprentice manager, you are authorized to visit any point on any time cube, past, present, or future—yours and those you are managing.”

“But nothing will change?” Khima said.

“We can influence choices but not their consequences. There are no guarantees. Even well intended and informed choices may end badly. But knowing what a time cube holds helps us advise those we manage.”

Khima pointed to a dozen brightly colored cubes in a separate section of the box. “Are these mine, too?”

“No, those come from others on your behalf—mostly hopes and dreams.”

Khima turned a fluorescent green cube in his hand. “A dream?” he asked.

The man smiled. “That one is a prayer. When you told your father you wished one day to become a pilot, he prayed it would happen. If you had lived, that prayer may have helped us to guide you. All of these,” he waved his hand over the bright cubes, “exist now only as beautiful lost memories.”

Khima stroked the colorful time cubes with his open hand. “Surely all dreams are not lost. You’ve had successes?”

“Oh, many. And requests come from all over,” said the man in the lightning-white tunic. “Jacob Marley, a man who was already here in Ever-endeavor, asked to go back to warn his old business partner. We gave him permission and sent along three managers with time cubes from his partner’s past, present, and future. That turned out very well.

The light man raised a finger. “Another time, an apprentice manager like yourself became upset that a good man in his charge had lost his way and was contemplating suicide. He gave George Bailey access to time cubes for possible pasts and presents. George came to appreciate that his life had meaning and did just fine after that.

The light man shrugged. “But most of our advice goes unheeded. Everyone who arrives at Ever-endeavor, which everyone must, confronts the choices they made in life and the consequences—for themselves and for others. All the joy and all the pain are here in the time cubes, without deceptions, without masks, no matter how much people hid behind them in life.”

Khima winced. “That could be hell.”

“That is hell. Hell is the pain one inflicted on oneself and on others,” said the light man. “The living can always correct their path, but once here, if they’ve never confronted their shadows, the pain merges permanently to become part of their time cube.”

“Time Cube Managers have a tough job,” Khima said.

“If you find it easier, you can work from your garden and transfer the time cubes there. Where would you like to begin: politicians, businessmen, schoolteachers, priests, drug dealers? You see we have many opportunities.” The man in electric-white pointed, and rows of filing cabinets appeared in columns and lines extending out to the Wyoming horizon.

Dating on Callisto

Previous stories in this series: And To All A Good Night ; Callisto Confidential ;  Who’s Out There?

The invitation said the cabriolet would wait five minutes. Carly jumped into her moon suit. She said, “Stay,” to Heathcliff then dashed into the airlock and stopped. Just inside the pressure door stood a metal-frame wood-slatted bench.

She sealed the inner airlock door, depressurized the chamber, and sat on the bench. It backed immediately out through the airlock without the door opening. A near invisible bubble surrounded her and the bench, and separated from the wall of the Command Center bunker. The floating bench stabilized and rotated 180 degrees as the bubble glided away mere inches above the moon’s surface. Oxygen, air pressure, and temperature were benign Earth standard.

Callisto JupiterCarly willed calm, but her senses screamed on panic alert. Leaning back against the bench, she tried to enjoy the ride. The bubble made straight for the object she and Heathcliff had discovered, cresting and descending the ragged crater rim rather than taking the level path. Carly wondered as she scanned Jupiter in the open black sky; how might this look without her helmet?

Ahead Carly saw the smooth chalky protrusion of the metal blister on Callisto’s granular white surface. The bubble kissed the wall of the blister and pushed forward as the wall opened slowly like a waking eyelid. Her bench slid into a hall of closed doors. The wall sealed, and the bubble vanished.

Oxygen, air pressure, and temperature measured acceptable. Carly removed her helmet. Foot stamping told her the gravity remained one eighth that of Earth.

She counted thirty-six closed wooden doors, each with a place name. Most were familiar to her, but Kailash, Aksai Chin, Ladakh, and Tregrosse were not. Only the Virginia door was unlocked and open, deliberately she discovered, finding a hand-written note inviting her to select a dress. Hmm, the dressing room mentioned in the invitation.

All the dresses were fashionable, colorful, and her correct size with shoes to match. Carly laughed. She had no makeup or any way to fix her hair. Cheek pinching and finger combing would have to do. She selected a red satin dress with small black flowers, a scooped neck, and three-quarter sleeves, and low black heels.

A six-panel door with a brass handle opened into a vaulted, sun-lit room. High-stacked windows overlooked a tree-lined valley. She took a breath, held the brass rails on both sides, and stepped out.

She felt the weight increase instantly and locked her arms on the bars like a paraplegic re-learning to walk. Her body swayed, searching for a center of balance.

“Welcome, Miss Shellion,” an accented voice said. She looked up at a dark complexioned man in a white turban, short blue vest, and loose red pants tucked into high boots.

“Please,” he said and extended his arm.

“I just need a moment,” she said, taking his arm and trying a few steps.

“Raja Dakkar waits for you on the terrace.”

“Roger Dakkar?”

“Yes, shall I bring your martini?”

“That would be lovely.” She shifted her hold from the man’s arm to the doorframe and the rail leading out to the terrace.

A tall formally dressed gentleman rushed to her side and helped her to a low seat along the terrace wall.

“Thank you,” Carly said, her legs shivering. The man’s face was dark, his hair raven and brushed back into a mane. He was lean, athletic, and angularly handsome. His obsidian eyes glistened reassuring confidence.

“Mr. Dakkar?”

“Yes, Miss Shellion. It was so good of you to accept my invitation.”

Carly stroked the edge of her chin and found herself lost for words. Still shaking, she took in the Earth-like mountain valley around her, the gentle breeze, and the scent of a forest in summer. The turbaned man brought a tray of martinis, raw oysters, and biscuits. She lifted her glass to Dakkar, he lifted his, and they sipped.

Perfect taste, perfect chill. She looked across the stone terrace wall, up to the tree-lined horizon then down to the valley floor. Every detail perfect.

“I suppose proper etiquette requires we begin with polite banter,” Carly said, finding her voice, “but at the risk of being curt, how can this be? This space inside Jupiter’s moon, your wall-traversing cabriolet moon-walker, this gravity, these fine amenities,” she raised her glass, “thank you very much, this virtual scenery? Are you human? In what century are we?”

Dakkar’s somber expression dissolved into charming smile lines. “I’m quite human, and we’re still working on time travel.” He took a savoring pull on his martini. “I’m afraid that to understand all you’ve seen might require a great deal of unlearning. Physics and philosophy are heavy dinner topics. Might we wait until later, after another drink?” He touched the rim of his martini glass, and the turbaned servant replaced it with a fresh one. Carly waved that hers was fine.

“My name is Roger Dakkar. I am an entrepreneur. I’m here because I have major business concerns on Callisto.”

“Did I hear your servant refer to you as Raja?”

“Rachit worked on my family’s estate in India,” Dakkar said, sliding an oyster from a chilled shell onto a cracker which he handed to Carly. “Do try this. I confess I checked your food preferences before sending you the invitation.”

“You know my food preferences, too?” Carly scowled and ran her hand along the line of her chin. “I’m at a bit of a disadvantage here.”

“I know this was sudden, but I thought explanations would be easier after your visit. Go ahead. Ask me what you will.”

“What is this place? How can it be so … so Earth-like?”

“Because this is Earth.” Dakkar waited for her next question.

“I see,” Carly said and pointed both index fingers. “So you don’t have a time machine, but you do have a teleporter.”

“Not a teleporter, but yes, our Myseko gate operates like a teleporter.”

“Where did you get it?”

“Viktor Myseko is on my discovery team. We discover what is already created. We believe that if one looks for it, the path of discovery is clear. All math and science link to it. Edison and Einstein both talked about following existing paths. Needing to see oneself, one’s institution, or one’s government as the ultimate creator is a great stumbling block.” Dakkar opened his hands and gazed upward. “What you see here is low hanging fruit generously provided. Reach out, and the products present themselves.” He looked into Carly’s wide expression. “Shall we eat?”

Rachit cleared the martinis and oysters and brought the first course of young greens, pecans, sheep’s milk cheese, and tomatoes. Crayfish chowder and seared foie gras followed then the main course of braised Strauss duck.

Carly found out that Roger Dakkar was twenty-nine. His father was Indian and his mother an American from Cincinnati. He had dropped out of Ohio State University and founded a successful software company. He became fabulously wealthy and run afoul of the US government when he refused to reveal his coding techniques. Labeled dangerous and greedy, he escaped the country before his assets could be seized and was joined by a host of similar outcasts.

“Who is John Galt?” Carly teased.

Dakkar laughed. “I believe Ayn Rand had my grandfather in mind when she wrote Atlas Shrugged. They were more than friends for years.”

The dessert was Cherries Jubilee served over vanilla bean ice cream with splinters of dark chocolate on the side.

“Could I—” Carly started to ask for tea as a cup was set beside her and a pot of tea poured. She studied it, lifted it to her nose, and shook her head. “White Bai Hao Yinzhen tea. Mr. Dakkar, you do amaze me.”

“Thank you, Miss Shellion. That was my intent.” He gave a head bow.

“You said your business brought you to Callisto. What business might that be?” Carly asked and took a bite of her ice cream and cherries.

“I hold the interstellar charter to harvest Mok on Callisto,” Dakkar said.

The next story in the Callisto series is: What is Mok?

Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”

The Cherry Sourball

“We’re on the air in…” Marsha Mellow checked her watch, “ninety-eight minutes. So let’s rehearse the questions. Then you can both go back to makeup.”

“Thank you, Marsha,” Senator Toggle said, his gray hair perfectly coiffed. “Before we start, I want to say—”

“We only have a few minutes, Senator, so let’s get right to Dr. Setback’s discovery.” She turned to the crew arranging the set. “How’s the lighting?” The cameraman looked out from his camera and waved. “Sound, Geoff?” The straggle-haired soundman gave a thumbs-up and propped his sandaled feet on the mixing console.

Mellow began, “Doctor Setback and his team have perfected a Smart Pill. Have I said that correctly?” She looked at the scientist.

“It’s not a pill precisely, not in the medical sense. Actually,” he projected a stack of schematics and formulas, “it’s a precisely ordered sequence of APMs, atomically precise machines, that act as catalysts to restructure neural—”

“I’m sorry, Doctor,” Mellow interrupted, “our audience has a secondary-school understanding of science. Can you give them the lollypop version?” Setback looked chastised.

“My Smart Pill optimizes every human faculty,” he started again. “Saliva and sucking action in the mouth dissolves the pill to release nano, I mean, very tiny agents. From the mouth, these agents migrate to the brainstem then up to the brain. The affect is almost immediate.” Setback smiled. “We even made it cherry flavored to encourage sucking.”

Mellow leaned toward the scientist, her eyes dramatically wide. “How soon before I can expect to have encyclopedic knowledge, perfect memory, hyper-normal focus, and an expert golf swing?”

“You will have all those things and more, but pill production will be slow. My team took sixteen years to assemble this first—“

“Do you have it to show us, Doctor?” Mellow interrupted.

“It’s in the jacket I left in the car.”

“Okay, get it before we go on. For now, pretend you’re showing it to me.”

“This little pill has sixteen million agents,” he pointed to the hollow of his open hand, “each built atom by atom, and each designed specifically for one task.”

“Who gets this one?” Mellow asked, cheerily pointing to Setback’s open hand.

“Senator Toggle.” He gestured past Mellow who pivoted in her seat.

Toggle cleared his throat. “The Committee On Human Enhancement, which I chair, considers Dr. Setback’s Smart Pill to be a momentous breakthrough, perhaps the greatest in human history. Certainly it would be immoral to profit from this invention or to regulate its availability. So selecting the first recipient is a very serious responsibility. We must consider the humanitarian implications and those underserved in our community. I and my party—“

“Thank you, Senator Toggle,” Mellow said, “I think we’re ready to go.” She looked around. “Everyone take a break and get back in…” she checked her watch, “twenty-three minutes.” She looked at Setback. “Doctor, before makeup, could you bring in the pill—so we have it ready on set.”

Toggle left for the makeup room and Setback for the parking lot. Soundman Geoff gestured to the cameraman, pinching his thumb and forefinger to his pursed lips and pointing to the smoking deck. He took the sourball from his mouth and placed it on the mixer console before heading to the back door.

First to return to the set, Senator Toggle spotted Geoff’s sourball on the console. No one was around. He examined the red candy, holding it up to the light before poking it into his mouth.

“Ah, yes,” he murmured, “I knew I was the one. Everything’s so clear now. I was right all along.” He looked up savoring the cherry flavor and spreading his arms wide. “I’m the one,” he shouted and headed out the front door.

Doctor Setback walked in next with a wide-checked jacket over his arm.

“No, no, that won’t do,” Marsha Mellow said, coming in behind him. “We’ll get you another jacket. Just leave it here and go back to makeup.”

Setback removed a baggy with the red Smart Pill from the jacket, set them both on the mixing console, and followed Mellow to makeup.

At that moment, Geoff stumbled in, fell into his seat, and looked around. “Hey, Marsh’, you take my sourball? Ahh, I see it. Okay, thanks for putting it in a baggy.” He plopped the pill into his mouth. It was smaller than he remembered, but he decided not to accuse Mellow of sucking on it.

“Ready on set,” Marsha called, rushing out with Setback as the lights came up. “Now where’s Toggle?”

“I saw him running in the lot as I came in,” Geoff said, sucking vigorously.

“And where’s my Smart Pill,” Setback said, lifting the empty baggy. Geoff relaxed as he felt the pill take effect.

“I thought it was my cherry sourball,” he said. Setback’s knees buckled, and he grabbed the back of Geoff’s chair to stay upright.

“On the air,” the director said, “in eight, seven …”

“Quick, get over here,” Mellow pulled Geoff and Setback onto the set and pushed them into the seats. “Geoffrey Goodman,” she said, “you’re the first to try Doctor Setback’s Smart Pill. What do you have to say?” Her face wore a tight smile.

Slide1Geoff lifted his sandaled feet onto the coffee table. “It’s overwhelming, Marsha. Looking out from where I sit, I see it all clearly. Everyone has a special mission, a purpose, but we’re all consumed by our default settings. We treat our egos like a matter of life and death. The first thing we need to …”

From his living room recliner, Jeremy lifted the remote as he shouted to his girlfriend. “I thought Mellow had Senator Toggle scheduled for tonight.”

“Did we miss him?” Ashley called back. “I love hearing him. He really cares about us.”

Jeremy started flipping through the channels.