Gift of Giving

I am an excellent gift giver. Is this a brag or even a humblebrag? No, it’s a fact and one other thing, which I will reveal later. “Why bring this up at all?” you might be asking yourself, “I’m busy enough without your non-brag bragging.” 

Because it is the season of gift-giving. I’m going to pause here for those who questioned this topic to go “Ahhhh!”

Pause…

Now back to the gift-giving. It is for many people, a source of great stress. We can put a lot of pressure on ourselves on getting that PERFECT GIFT. A gift that will make this holiday (Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice, Festivus, Orthodox Life-Day, Saturnalia, etc) complete. That’s a lot to ask of a thing, so let’s accept that while a gift can be excellent, it’s not magic.

If it’s not magic, then what’s the secret? How can we match your self-declared skill in this specific wheelhouse? Simmer down there, I’m going to lay a little wisdom on you all. Ready? Good.

ONE-LISTEN

People tell you what they want or need all the time. Sometimes literally. “I really need a new scarf.” Or “I quite liked the Dune movie, I should read the book.” Maybe, “I’d like to start cooking more.”

All of these are just sitting there, ready to be picked up. Scarf, copy of Dune, cookbook, cooking classes, or a new pot and/or pan. All you had to do was pay attention. It also involves not being self-involved.

Simple and so hard. Even before supply chain problems and the world being on fire, it’s not always easy to not worry about oneself. I’m not advising a Saint’s level of selflessness, just be aware of what’s being said. Here’s an example of this from my own life.

When shopping at a Costco with an old girlfriend, (ah the romance), I looked for those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers but they didn’t have them. A mild disappointment at best but I mentioned it to her, then promptly forgot about it.

The next time I was at her place, one of those giant cartons of Pepperidge Farms goldfish crackers awaited me. It was one of the best presents I’ve gotten. It meant that what I said, even in passing, perhaps especially in passing, mattered.

Are we still together? Let’s just say that love and goldfish crackers aren’t a universal solution. Nonetheless, this is the sort of thing to listen for. Whomever you do this for will be touched by your attentiveness. If not, those little crackers will fill the hole left by loneliness. Just kidding. Nothing will fill that hole.

TWO-ASK

Don’t ask the recipient, unless you both don’t care about the surprise. Do ask their friends or family. Often times they can give you excellent insights. Also swear them to secrecy, if you can trust them to do so. Use your best judgment. 

THREE-DON’T WAIT

It’s July, you see a sea glass necklace your sister would just love, but her birthday was two months ago and it’s five months till Christmas. You could make a note to come back later and pick it up close to the holidays. It will still be there, right?

WRONG! Oftentimes, unique gifts will not wait for you to make up your mind. If you know that’s an excellent gift for someone. Get it. If you fumfer, you will likely lose out. Or more accurately, the person who would love that thing loses out. (A side note: Don’t tell them that you saw something that they would adore and but waited too long. In this case, the thought DOES NOT COUNT!)

So as you go through life and you see something that you know will bring someone else joy, just get it, and put it away. When the holidays roll around and everyone else is franticly searching for presents, Jingle All The Way style, you’ll be sitting comfortably in front of a roaring fire, drinking eggnog like a boss, listening to the Vince Guaraldi Trio, and smiling because you’ve done your shopping. Well done!

FOUR-THE PERFECT GIFT

As stated previously, perfection doesn’t exist. However, it’s possible to come close, but it is a real challenge. What is this rare and wonderful item? The thing that you didn’t know you wanted till you saw it.

This is tough to pull off, maybe even impossible. But when you can do it, wow, it’s amazing! Naturally, there is no one thing that can fill that order for everyone. Especially a car with a bow on the roof. If you do that you’re a dead-eyed, soulless monster. Am I planting my flag on this hill? You bet your holly jolly jingle bells I am.

Okay, back to why this is so hard. Say your sweetie collects Peanuts memorabilia. Charlie Brown and Snoopy stuff all over the place. You want to give them something special but it looks like they have everything already. Given their breadth of what they have, it’s a concern. They likely have done daily deep Google dives looking for additions to the collection. What do you do?

Let’s go back to part one. Listen. Did they mention a piece they are looking for? A character they resonate with? Start with that. 

Additionally, you can find a lot of artists who will make something for you to order. A wholly unique gift. It will also show that you’ve been paying attention.

As I said before, it’s tricky at best. Even if it’s not an epiphany in wrapping paper, the fact you made a real effort will be appreciated. In this case, the thought DOES count.

FIVE-WRAPPING UP

So, I’ve given you two solid techniques, one possibly useful trick, and a final aspirational idea. The fact is that being good at gifts isn’t that difficult if you pay attention. Here’s another tip, you don’t have to spend a lot of money to do this. The best gifts don’t have to cost a lot of cash. If you have a big budget for gift-giving, good for you. It must be nice. Or so I would imagine.

In the beginning, I said that my being an excellent gift-giver was a fact and one other thing. The other thing is you don’t always get excellent gifts. 

One Christmas, I was given by a close friend, a memo cube. You might ask, “What is a memo cube?” A memo cube is a plastic cube filled with square pieces of paper, for writing down messages. This was not something I ever desired nor was it was something I never knew I wanted. Truthfully, had I given memo cubes even one second of thought, I wouldn’t have ever desired one. Why did he give it to me? I still don’t know.

Just so you don’t think I’m just grousing, I have received many thoughtful gifts over the years. For example, I’m a big fan of robots. A good friend of mine gives me a robot or robot-themed gift for my birthday every year. Clearly, I’m not the only excellent gift giver. A reassuring thought.

So when you go off to shop for the holidays, keep my advice in mind. Those you give to will appreciate it. And if by some twist of fate you come across a memo cube, keep walking.

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Victorious!

Lord Adeptus stood triumphant. It had been a titanic battle, statures were used as weapons, buildings had been toppled, and the Capitalopous City zoo’s animals now roamed unhindered. Not part of the plan, but the added soupçon of chaos pleased the super-villain. He considered it a happy accident.

His arch-rivals, Courage Incorporated, lay defeated before him. The Mighty Singularity-collapsed, Joan of Arc-Lightning-shorted out, The Incredible Egg-cracked, Dog-Man-playing dead, and The Marathoner (world’s fastest woman)-immobile. 

Well, nearly all. One hero remained, Ms. Bubble-Elastic. Considered the weakest of Courage Incorporated, while her stretching was amazing, she merely had human strength, which made her a far less effective combatant than her teammates. The living Rubber Band, as she was sometimes called by the media, was tied up neatly with a bow. Literally.

It was everything he ever dreamed of. And now for the victory speech. While he wished all his foes could hear him, Lord Adeptus had micro drones recording this pivotal moment in history so everyone would see it. Additionally, it was streaming live, then be available on all platforms due to his excellent coding acumen. He cleared his throat and began.

“People of the world, behold your so-called heroes, brought low. It was I, Lord Adeptus, your new master who has done this. Too long have the nations of Earth squabbled over their petty differences. At last, you all will know peace under my benevolent and unbreakable rule. 

“No one,” he gestured to the prone heroes before him, “is left to oppose me.”

“That’s not really true,” observed Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

Lord Adeptus smirked, he was especially good at smirking. He practiced it quite a bit.

“Perhaps you missed the part of the story where I soundly defeated you and your ‘so-called’ heroes!”

“First, we aren’t ‘so-called.’ We’re are actual heroes. Only guys like you dispute that. Second, there are a lot of heroes around the world. A LOT!”

“Bah!” decried Lord Adeptus (he was a big BAH guy), “They matter not!”

“Do you want me to list them?” asked the pliable hero.

“No!” replied Lord Adeptus, who was not happy about his monolog becoming a dialogue. 

 “There’s the Feminist Five, The Superior Society, The Olympus Club, The Adjusters, Les Protecteurs de Paris, The Z-People, The Sidekickers, Aliens for Earth, Warriors of Wushu, The Homegrown Heroes-”

“And they all shall fall!” declared the super-villain.

“Of course there are all the solo heroes, Mistress Might, After-Dark Detective, Astounding Arachnid, Bellowing Bulko, Mister Sprightly, Shinky Dink, Forestina, Major Attitude, Hot Mess, Sound Check-”

“They will be dealt with!” asserted Lord Adeptus, who was less than pleased with how his victory speech was going. In fact, it was at this point that he cut the live feed. It could be fixed in post.

“Let’s say that you have a plan for everyone, including Prankasuarus, the world’s trickiest dinosaur,” began Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“I don’t need to say it because I do,” interjected Lord Adeptus.

“Do you have a plan for all the other super-villains?” she finished.

“They will all have a place in my new regime.”

“Because villains never backstab each other in the last minute in a power grab.”

“Well, it won’t happen this time.”

“Because?” inquired Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“The entire world has seen my indisputable superiority! None dare challenge me!”

“That is a LOT of confidence.”

“Founded in my innate primacy!”

Ms. Bubble-Elastic chuckled and said, “Okay then.”

“I have prepared for every eventuality.”

“Oh, I’m sure you have.”

“Absolutely,” stated Lord Adeptus

“Care to share with the class?”

“It’s very complicated, I doubt you would grasp it,” he said offhandedly.

“Can I ask you something?” 

“You just did,” Lord Adeptus smugly replied.

“C’mon, you’re better than that.”

Lord Adeptus paused, blushing beneath his titanium tech-mask. He had immediately regretted saying that.

“Very well, present your query,” he said in what he hoped was a magnanimous timber.

“Why do you want to rule the world?”

No one had ever asked him this.

“Because,” he said, “it is my destiny!”

Laughter exploded from Ms. Bubble-Elastic. It echoed off the ragged remains of buildings and sent a flock of pigeons that were scavenging crumbs from a nearby bagel place whose windows had been shattered in the fight.

“That was NOT a jest!” shouted Lord Adeptus.

“I mean, it’s just silly,” she pointed out.

“Lord Adeptus is many things, but he is never silly!”

“Listen, if it was your destiny, why didn’t it happen before?”

“That’s not how it works…”

“Oh, okay,” she agreed with her own smirk.

Striking a pose on a broken statue, Lord Adeptus began to speechify again, “Kneel before me Earth, and embrace your new role as my grateful subjects!”

“It just seems like a lot of work,” observed Ms. Bubble-Elastic.

“What?” shouted Lord Adeptus, whose patience was being really put to the test.

“Ruling the world.”

“Ha! I am more than capable of such a task!”

“So you have a plan?”

“Naturally!”

“What’s your outline for infrastructure, healthcare, social services, education, family leave, the logjam in the legal system, the fact that most corporations aren’t paying any taxes whatsoever when working families are struggling just to keep a roof over their heads or feed their children. Just to name a few of the things that will be on your plate.”

Energy crackled over the armored supervillain. This was one of his signature intimidation moves. It had cowed many a foe. Ms. Bubble-Elastic just stared at him like she was waiting for a toddler to finish his tantrum.

“Your courage is to be admired, my rubbery foe, many have quaked in fear of my might!” he said, trying to get control of this conversation.

“Well, I admire your courage, to take on so many issues that have divided people for many, many years. It’s going to be a lot of work. Clear that schedule!”

“I, Lord Adeptus, alone can make this world a paradise!”

“You’re not getting help?”

“I will employ the finest minds to aid me in repairing the world.”

“So, it won’t be you ALONE then.”

“No, I mean yes! I will spearhead these initiatives!”

“And discussions.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, to get stuff done, you’ll be in discussions and reading policy papers all the time. And let’s face it, there will be a lot of debate about how to do what you want.”

“Did you forget about the finest minds I will summon?” he pointed out.

“Because smart people never argue about how to get things done. The truth of it will be that you won’t know till you try out what they give you. Oh, I’m sure they won’t try to undermine their rivals to get their idea done.”

“But… Finest minds” offered Lord Adeptus.

“I can’t even get this group,” she nodded towards her fallen teammates, “To agree on what to order for dinner. This one wants Thai but that one had Thai for lunch. Then someone else wants pizza and God help us when we bring up toppings. It’s a whole thing. But I’m sure your finest minds will all work together in perfect harmony.”

Lord Adeptus sat on the rubble and pondered this. It had all seemed so easy when he planned it. Rule the world. Make sweeping changes. Be adored. All the other times he made a strategic retreat (never a defeat), it had only strengthened his resolve. 

Now that it was in his grasp, something occurred to him that he had not yet considered. Did he really want to be the undisputed Emperor of Earth? Did Emperors get to do what wanted to all the time? Probably. Maybe? Would that make him bad at being an Emperor? 

She was right about the other super-villains. They were, on a whole, an untrustworthy lot. There would be coups, assassination attempts, probably somebody switching nonsense. He could kill them all but it’s not like more wouldn’t just appear. It was exhausting just thinking about it.

He knew his path was set. He knew he was mighty enough to stride down it. Few could, perhaps only him. Indeed, only he could do what was necessary. 

The first Emperor of Earth reactivated his live feed, stood, and proclaimed, “I Lord Adeptus have this to proclaim. There are many ills that plague our world, but it is the duty of humanity, to cure these. You should not, nay cannot look to Lord Adeptus to save you. When people are wise enough to lift themselves out of the mire that they themselves have created, on that day, and not before, will I return to rule! Your pleas and tears will not sway me! I am resolute! So says Lord Adeptus!”

And with that, he ignited his hyper-jetpack and flew off into the sky.

Ms. Bubble-Elastic untied herself, as she could’ve done all along being the Living Rubber-band, and called for the meta-human EMTs.

After aiding with clean-up and rescue, she was interviewed by the media. They asked her what happened in that when no one could hear them? How did she do the seemingly impossible? What did she say to make someone like Lord Adeptus give up his dreams of world conquest, even as they were there within his grasp?

With a wry smile, she said, “Well, at the end of the day, no one wants to go to meetings.”

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No Questions Please

Magic is all about style. Each spellcaster cultivates their own techniques. Two different magicians can accomplish the result through very different means. One might travel instantaneously across a city by slowing time so it appears that they have suddenly appeared in a different place, while another dissolves into conscious light and speeds to their destination. The merits of techniques are fiercely debated amongst in arcane circles (social circles, not the kind used for ritual or protection), but at the end of the day, each magician has their own particular modus operandi.

-From the Esoteric Primer, Volume One

There are two things magicians love anything above magic itself, the first has to be luxury. When you can rework the fundamental laws of the universe, you’re not going to be content with a folding chair and reheated take-out. Such people desire the best of everything because they work so hard. So they say. 

Luxury includes clothing. Robes are still very popular. While comfort is a factor, style is also important. You might see a waistcoat that shows the night sky where it was tailored, an orrery hat, flame trousers, seafoam gowns, or even crystal culottes.

The second thing they crave is gossip and a place to do that gossiping. One would think that a group of people whose existence was a secret would know how to keep their mouths shut. One would be wrong. They thrive on it. Who created a new spell? Who tried to steal the sweetheart of another, failed, then created a golem that looks and acts just like the aforementioned sweetheart? Who is still invisible after a year of trying to reverse the spell gone wrong?

In New York City, the place where all of that takes place is the Dee Club, named for the British magician, John Dee. It’s located somewhere on the lower east side of Manhattan, though it has a habit of moving occasionally but members never have trouble finding it.

On this day, we see the return of October Maniver, a member in good standing and Aeromancer, glided into the club’s common room. He was dressed in a Victorian-era explorer’s outfit made of gold cloth. His deep green hair and beard were, as always, perfectly coiffed. He immediately spotted his old friend and Transforming Mage, Amos DuFontaine, who was sporting an ever-shifting, paisley print fox hunting ensemble.

“October! When did you get back?”

“Yesterday, I just flew back from Patagonia.”

Neither magician asked about the tiredness of arms. It was considered to be in bad taste.

“What’s there? Other than excellent barbecue?”

“There was an Aeromancer, Catalina Baltazar, who had been rumored to have made some incredible discoveries in her field, but left no records of her findings.”

“Intriguing,” responded Amos, “What happened to her? Delved too deeply?”

October leaned in and whispered, “Misadventure,” and Amos nodded sagely.

It was not unheard of for magicians to perish or vanish or even be transmogrified while pushing the boundaries of their craft. Sad, but it was considered to be a ‘died as they lived’ end. Misadventure, however, was the worse way to die for a magician. It meant they slipped on an icy street, or choked on a fishbone, or were hit by a bus. In other words, an avoidable accidental death. Very shameful for a group of people who break the laws of physics on a regular basis.

Changing the subject, October shared, “While her villa was abandoned, and ransacked, I chose to stay there for a month, exploring. The wind blew day and night, it was haunting. Eventually, I sensed a pattern. Catalina Baltazar had carved the surrounding canyon walls-”

“She lived in a canyon?” asked Amos.

“Yes! I just said that,” snapped October.

Amos thought to himself, “Technically, you implied that,” but said nothing because he didn’t want it to become a ‘thing.’

“As I was saying, she carved the canyon walls into the world’s largest ocarina. When I redirected the wind, it produced an intricate music composition that, when deciphered, will reveal her secrets.”

“Well done old bean!”

“I hate to argue with you so I’ll just have to agree,” replied October with a pronounced lack of modesty, “Is Lianna about? Her talent with Symphomancy is well known and I’d like to tempt her to… collaborate with me on this.”

“She around here somewhere.”

From across the room, a musical laugh was launched and sailed around the room. It was Lianna, as lovely as October remembered her. Before you get too moony over that notion, he’d only been gone a month and if someone looks drastically different after that short a period of time, things have likely gone very, very wrong.

As said, she was still stunningly attractive, garbed in a gown of woven musical notes, her pale azure hair spilled down her back like a cloudless summer sky. And sitting next to her, in October’s favorite chair was…

“Who is that?”

“Oh, he’s a new member.” said Amos, “Just joined recently, he’s from Chicago.”

“I see.”

“Let me introduce you,” and October was led to the group that had gathered around this newcomer.

“Charlie, here’s someone you should meet, October Maniver,” offered Amos.

Charlie stood up, held out his hand, and said, “The famous Aeromancer! A real pleasure!”

October shook Charlie’s hand and looked him up and down. Not handsome nor ugly. His hair was brown. Not the brown of an autumn leaf that had fallen to the forest floor. Just brown. If there was anything extraordinary about him is was his ordinariness. His attire was odd. Not odd like most magicians. He was wearing jeans, sneakers, and under a sports coat, what at first looked like a hooded tunic but turned out to be a hoody.

“Yes, I’m sure.”

“Hey, let’s get another round of drinks!” suggested Charlie and everyone agreed. Even October suddenly wanted a drink.

Cocktails were distributed, glasses were raised, spirits were both raised, and consumed. 

“Lianna here was about to tell us about that crazy piccolo that nearly destroyed Carnegie Hall,” stated Charlie.

“Truthfully, it wasn’t the piccolo that was insane, but the enchanter who made it was most definitely was!” supplied the Symphomancer.

This created more laughter and more magicians gathered to join in on the fun.

“I hate to interrupt,” interrupted October, “But there is a pressing matter I need to discuss with Lianna.”

Conversation and laughter died out as he said that.

“October, let’s talk later, we’re all having such a grand time!” added Lianna.

This was the unanimous opinion of the group, including Amos, much to October’s irritation.

“C’mon pal,” said Charlie, “pull up a chair and join us!”

“I would, but you’re sitting in my customary seat,” tetchily replied October.

“Sorry man,” stated Charlie, “I didn’t know. It’s all yours.”

The newest member stood and offered the chair. October was about to take, what he considered to be his rightful place when he looked around. Instead of the approval of reinstatement of the natural order of things, he was being given death stares. Not actual Death Stares, those were forbidden to be used on club premises by the bylaws, but his social standing was dissolving around him.

“Everyone, let’s head to the roof garden, they have it set for late spring and the view is spectacular,” suggested Lianna.

This suggestion was taken up with gusto by the rest of the crowd, which had grown to include everyone. Everyone except October. As they filed out of the common room, the aggrieved Aeromancer muttered, “I should challenge that cur!”

“Excuse me?” said Charlie.

Everyone fell silent, including October.

“It sounds like you’re formally challenging me,” declared Charlie.

October knew that things were spiraling out of control and did the only thing he could. He double-downed.

“Indeed! I formally challenge you to a duel!”

“Okay then, if I understand the club rules, and I do. Never join a group if you don’t know what’s what. It’s good advice,” he said with a wink, “Now, by the rules of OUR club, I get to choose the terms of this dust-up.”

“Yes, you do,” replied October.

“I’m a reasonable guy, no need to fight to the death. Let’s just say till one of us gives up. Willing.”

The assembled group all thought that was an excellent idea.

“Fine.”

“And as the challenged party, it will be my magic versus yours. No need for pistols or sabers.”

“These terms are acceptable.”

“Great! I’m happy you’re so agreeable,” Charlie added, “Because. The. Rules. Are. Important.”

“Yes.”

“And I’ll need a second,” added Charlie. Everyone volunteered but he chose a whipcord lean Battle-Mage by the name of Delano Constantinople.

October chose Amos who replied, “Oh… Certainly,” with a lack of enthusiasm. 

“Sweet, let’s do this tomorrow, let’s say noonish? Then we can go out for lunch afterwards.”

With that, the assembled crowd exited, leaving October alone.

The next day, the entirety of the Dee Club assembled at the dueling grounds in Westchester, just north of Sleepy Hollow. It had bequeathed to the club by an old member who was repeatedly fined for dueling in public. It was named the Bethawai Dueling Grounds, clearly in a fit of pique but the name stuck and here we are.

October arrived in a cloud of fog and wind. It was a very showy entrance and usually got applause but today it only earned him some disinterested glances. 

Charlie was ready there and chatting with Nial Thaker, the Serjeant at Arms. Nial was laughing a little too enthusiastically, thought October. He strode up to hear the end of Charlie’s story.

“-and that’s how we escaped!”

Nial whooped with delight, “What life you’ve led my friend!”

“I’m sure you’ve had plenty of adventures,” added Charlie.

Then Nial, to October’s shock, actually blushed. He had seen her dissemble a rival’s clockwork beast with but a whisper after it had stepped in the edge of her very long skirt. The Aeromancer cleared his throat.

“I see you’re here,” she remarked with unveiled disregard, “Very well, let’s get this show on the road.”

With small charm, she amplified her voice, “Assembled magicians, a challenge has been issued! October Aloysius Maniver, you have issued a challenge to Charles Steven Close. Do you wish to withdraw? You may do so without loss of face.”

If October was a more reasonable magician (they do exist, really), he would have not issued this challenge in the first place. 

“I do not withdraw!” he declared.

Nial then asked, “Are the seconds present?”

Delano Constantinople stood and bowed, which Charlie returned to the delight of the crowd. Amos waved halfheartedly but did not bow or even stand.

“Very well,” proclaimed Nial, “The terms of this duel have been established, once I leave the wards will be sealed and the combatants cannot leave till the terms are satisfied or surrender, yada yada yada!”

With that, she transformed into a cloud of tiny flying weapons and left the field.

“Prepare for humiliation,” grinned October.

“Oh, I’m prepared,” agreed Charlie.

October paused, this upstart was very self-assured and it made him uneasy. To bolster his own confidence, he created Wind Whips at the ends of his hands. They were not lethal, but very painful.

“That is so cool. I remember the day you first showed me that trick,” reminisced Charlie, “It was a day just like today.”

“What?” asked October, as his Wind Whips slightly diminished.

“We met at our favorite beer garden, the one where they had those great pretzels. You really loved those pretzels.”

“We only met yesterday and I have never socialized with you!”

Even as October verbally denied this history, a faint memory of that crept into his mind. As he fought it, he felt his Wind Whips fading away.

Charlie ambled toward October and added, “There was that waitress, Gerty. You had such a crush on her.”

“Lies! All lies!” shouted October, his Wind Whips now gone, though an image of Gerty appeared in his mind’s eye. Mustering his fury, he flew into the air on a whirlwind, whipping up leaves and other debris.

With no fear, Charlie continued, “Right! You tried to show her that trick but you were so nervous you ended up spilling beer all over the place!”

“This isn’t true!” October shouted. Even as he denied it, the memory, yes it was a memory, became more real. He lowered to the ground, surrounded by the detritus his whirlwind had picked up.

Charlie was right next to him and offered, “It wasn’t a total loss, you got Gerty’s number.”

“I did, didn’t I?” October agreed, the digits remembered.

“A great night.”

“It was.”

October’s desire for petty vengeance left him. It all was so ridiculous. He spoke, “I give up. Willingly.”

As he said that, a cheer went up from the crowd, and he was forgiven. It wasn’t a spectacular duel, but those who watched it enjoyed it, and October felt that maybe the most important thing.

Everybody celebrated at a nearby beer garden, and it was a lovely afternoon. People got drunk, but not too drunk, partially because magicians generally have a very high resistance to drink, but also because of all the giant pretzels ordered.

As things were breaking up, October pulled Charlie aside and said, “This has been an odd day.”

“Some of the best days are odd ones.”

“I think you are correct.”

Charlie laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.

“While it is impolite to ask, I very much want to know what your area of magic is. I thought it might be a type of glamour, or chrono-manipulation but…”

“Generally, I’m not a fan of questions, puts a burden on the person being asked, and just slows things down. But since it all worked out in the end, I’ll tell you this.”

Charlie leaned in and whispered something into October’s ear. 

“That’s so simple!” declared October.

“Yes, and it really works,” offered Charlie with a smile.

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It Just Does

All I’m saying, is it shouldn’t work,” said Sub-Lieutenant Vaughan.

Abov-Lieutenant Park replied, “But it does work, you see it working right now.”

I know.”

So you have to accept that it does work,” asserted Park, “Right?”

Vaughan nodded. They sat quietly as the ship they served on, the SMC (Space Merchant Craft) Hina comfortably defied the laws of physics and hurtled at faster than light speed across the inky blackness of space.

But it really shouldn’t” reiterated Vaughan.

Lights flickered on the cramped flight deck.

Could you just let it go?”

Listen, I’m no physicist-”

-Then maybe stop right there.”

Vaughan shifted in his heavily padded acceleration couch, sighed, and muttered, “It just doesn’t make sense.”

A holo-screen flickered on the console. 

My brother married a wonderful person but cheats on them. Every chance he gets. Explain that to me,” said Park as she tapped on the holo-screen, stabilizing it.

I never met your brother.”

He’s not a good guy. I love him, but don’t lend him credits or leave your significant other with him.”

Why are you telling me this?” asked the Sub-Lieutenant.

Because,” replied the Abov-Lieutenant, “Something doesn’t have to be understandable to be true.”

I mean… I guess?”

So you agree?”

Uhhh, yes?”

The thrum of the Ionic Accelerator-Drive changed its pitch. 

SAY IT LIKE YOU MEAN IT!” shouted Park.

Vaughan jumped, as much as he could, being strapped into his acceleration couch.

Yes! Yes, yes, yes!” he yipped.

As if hearing what it wanted to, the sound of the Ionic Accelerator-Drive returned to normal. Additionally, there was an awkwardness that

now permeated the flight deck. Park knew he had to deal with that.

This is your first assignment, right?” asked the Abov-Lieutenant.

Vaughan nodded.

And I’ll bet your instructors just did a lot of hand waving about the Ionic Accelerator-Drive, right?”

Another nod.

First, you can speak, okay?”

Okay.”

Second, I know they also avoided your questions because of guild rules, proprietary technology, and legal blah de blah blah.

Yeah.”

I got the same runaround. They’ve been singing that tune since the Ionic Accelerator-Dive was first used,” said Park with a faint smile.

Didn’t that bother you?”

At first.”

But you got over it.”

I did.”

Vaughan waited for this pearl of wisdom that would illuminate the mystery. But the only thing he heard was the ping, beeps, boops that comprised the soft background noise of the SMC Hina accompanied by the deep bass of the Ionic Accelerator-Drive.

Can you tell me how?” asked Vaughan who was wondering if this was some sort of hazing of the new guy.

Let me tell you a story that was told to me, very early in my career,” said the Abov-Lieutenant.

Vaughan made a noise. It was not a patient one.

I was about to ship out for the first time.”

While Park was only about five years older than Vaughan, she spoke like an old space jockey, when she wanted to.

Me and my newly minted Sub-Lieutenants were having a celebratory drink at Phobos Station. Of course, we were all excited about heading into the Dark for our first time. After a while, we were all pretty drunk.”

What does this have to do with-” began Vaughan.

Abubububuah!” Park stated emphatically, “Neither of us are going anywhere. Except to Proxima Outpost, but we won’t get there for a while. So just listen.”

Okay.”

So, as I was saying, we were all pretty drunk. It was at this point that Jorgenson, one of my best friends a very curious person asked this, ‘Do any of you wonder how the Ionic Accelerator-Drive works?’”

Park now paused, Vaughan suspected for dramatic reasons.

Given our pickled state, we all had opinions on this and were about to launch into our theories when were interrupted by an old man with a cyborg eye, a robotic claw for a right hand, and a shock of white hair. His name, we would later learn, was Takashi Concord.”

Is that supposed to mean something to me?”

Oh, it will. As I was saying we were interrupted by this grizzled stranger. He fixed us with his cyborg eye and said, Have you pups ever heard of the Lexington Aurora? None of us had. Not a surprise, muttered Concord, they’d wanna keep that secret.

Now this was the sort of thing we were warned about, some old coot filling our hard drives with corrupted data. However, as I said before, we were alcoholically compromised so we listened. Old Concord pulled his chair up to our table and began to tell his tale. 

This was in the early days,” begun Concord, “When Dark weren’t all cluttered up like it is now.

Excuse me!” interrupted Vaughan, “Are you telling me a story within a story?”

I am,” responded Park.

Can’t you just tell me the story?”

Why would I do that?”

Because it would take less time.”

Again, where do you have to be? Other than where you are right now?”

Vaughan had no response.

Okay, I’ll continue then. Or should I say Concord will continue. 

The Lexington Aurora was one of the early FTL ships, not as shiny or fancy as the ships you lot will serve on, but she was as sturdy as space is cold. They don’t make them like that no more.

The crew were all experienced, and in those days that meant that they had all been out at least once. May not sound like much, but FLT travel was pretty new, so doing it once, and making it back alive meant you knew what was what, if you take my meaning.

So the Lexington Aurora is about three weeks out, heading to Barnard’s Star, when one day in the mess, a junior navigator, name of Lawrence asks his crewmates, how do you think this Ionic Accelerator-Drives works? Well, the rest tell him ‘Very Well!’ Then they all had a good laugh about that. 

Now Lawrence, he’s the sort of person who once he gets thinking about a notion, he can’t just put it aside. So he continues to talk about physics, the fundamental laws of the universe, and so on. Except now, his crewmate ain’t so amused. Spacers are a superstitious lot. Ironical given how its science is the rock on which their livelihoods are built but the Dark can do funny things to a person. 

They tell Lawrence to keep his fool mouth shut before something bad happens to them all. Of course, he tries to argue but they suggest he get some bunk time. And when I say suggest, I mean they frog marched him there and made sure.

During the third shift, a power-coupling blows. Now that ain’t unusual but after that, old Lawrence is now bad luck on two legs, as far as the rest of the crew is concerned. Aside from being given orders, no one will talk to him. A sensible fella, he’d keep his head down, do his job, then when he got to port, would request a transfer and pray for a fresh start.

But this fella, he cannot let it go. Since no one would say a word to him, he starts keeping a log about his thoughts and theories and whatnot. Funny thing is, little accidents keep happening, and guess who is everyone thinks is responsible? Now Lawrence is feverishly writing about how he’s afraid for his life. How the crew gives him what he describes as murderous stares as he passes by.”

Park took a sinister pause.

Well? What happened to him?” asked Vaughan.

Park continued in her Concord voice, The Lexington Aurora never made it Barnard’s Star. When then were reported overdue, a rescue ship was sent out to find her. The way I heard it, the whole ship was turned inside out. All hands lost. Even the data in the black box was corrupted. So if you want to theorize about what makes us go faster than light, best be stayin’ planet-side. That’s my advice.”

Vaughan gazed out of the front of the flight deck and watched the stars streak by. After a moment, he said this.

I have so many questions about that story. Is that supposed to scare me? If the ship was ‘turned inside out with all hands lost’, how does anyone know what happened? Why didn’t they tell anyone at the academy about this? Why did you have to hear it from some old, cyborg coot? Not to mention-”

Slow down there!” interjected Park, “Before you say something you’ll regret.”

But-,” began Vaughan.

You have to accept the fact that we are traveling faster than the speed of light. Correct?”

Well, yes-”

And just because we don’t understand the particulars of that process, doesn’t make it not work.”

True…”

Now there may or may not be holes in the story that Takashi Concord told me and my friends. That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be learned from it.”

I suppose.”

Whatever you believe, the story I shared with is more memorable than faulty parts or human error.”

Agreed. But what about-”

Here’s the thing. It’s possible to talk yourself out of anything.”

It’s ridiculous to think that doubt can affect a spacecraft.”

Just then, an odd clank was heard from somewhere deep within the Hina. 

Park gave Vaughan a meaningful look.

Then again,” Vaughan admitted, “maybe not.”

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The Subject-Happy New Year

For my faithful readers, I just wanted to tell you that I’m taking a brief break from The Subject, the story I’ve been writing. I need some time to plan where the next part of this tale will go. If you’ve enjoyed it, and I hope you have, no worries. Charlie, Debra, and company will return. If you didn’t enjoy it, why are you reading this? Aha! Got ya!

In either case, thank you for coming along with me on this journey. 

-Leo Byrne Jenicek

A.E.G.I.S. REPORT # 89H6-5C3-V90

LOCATION: XXXXXXXXXX

PROJECT: November Delta Beta

DATE: December 31st, 20XX

6:34 P.M. EST

TRANSCRIPT

X: What is it, Agent Red? I dislike being disturbed.

RED: I know sir but you need to turn on BCA News At Night broadcast.

X: I’m aware of the tensions at Zmiinyi Island and it is being dealt with.

RED: That’s not it, sir. Charlie Ramirez is giving a live interview.

X: Hold on.

RED: Orders sir?

X: Stand by.

(OVERHEARD FROM BROADCAST)

CHARITY: Okay, I’ll call you Charlie if you call me Charity and not Ms. Wilson.

RAMIREZ: Deal.

X: Make sure agents are at the studio.

RED: Yes sir, but Mister Ramirez isn’t in the studio. He’s broadcasting from Cambridge Massachusetts. We have operatives nearby. He and Ms. Feinberg are visiting friends for the New Year’s Holiday-

X: Hush.

CHARITY: Well, you’ve certainly done a lot of good in your short time as America’s Hero.

RAMIREZ: I’ve tried.

CHARITY: Lots of people would say you’ve succeeded. If I listed all you’ve accomplished-

RAMIREZ: Please don’t.

CHARITY: You’re also known for your modesty.

RAMIREZ: There are millions of people who are working to make the world better. 

CHARITY: Most of them can’t do the things you can.

RAMIREZ: Charity, they don’t need to. Everyone who does something to make the world a better place is a hero. It’s doesn’t have to be big and splashy, in fact, most of it isn’t. People working hard to make sure their kids have it better than they did. It’s a million tiny kindnesses. Holding the door for someone or just saying thank you. I know it doesn’t sound like much but all of that adds up, and it makes a huge difference.

(THREE SECOND PAUSE)

CHARITY: Wow.

RAMIREZ: I’m sorry, I just wanted to say that. 

CHARITY: No apology necessary. 

RAMIREZ: Now, I did tell your producers that I wanted to say something.

CHARITY: I think you did.

RAMIREZ: No, not that. 

CHARITY: That WASN’T your big statement.

RAMIREZ: No, I’m happy I said it though.

CHARITY: I can tell.

RAMIREZ: Now I want everyone to know I’m grateful for what I’ve been given. Truly. I’ve been given all sorts of opportunities, seen and done some amazing things. But all I wanted was to beat cancer and I’m not the only one who feels that way. Which is what I wanted to talk about. The process I went through saved my life. I have to wonder why governments first impulse is to make soldiers. No disrespect to those who serve, but the VA is full of folks who served and deserve better than they’re getting. 

We don’t need better weapons, we need better medical care. Too many people have to choose between getting needed medical care and putting food on the table. Or having a roof over their heads. That’s just not a choice anyone should have to make.

The most fantastic thing I got from all this was a second chance at life. Now the people who made this happen are not governments. I’m not sure what they want. If it’s money, you could make a lot more by selling a cure for everything than you can from selling super-soldiers. 

I’m asking those who made this fantastic thing to share it with the world. If you don’t, then why did you make it? This is your opportunity to make life a better place for everybody. Who can say that? Be real heroes. If you need money to make this happen, governments, it’s time to step up and do right by your people. There might be reasons not to do this but I can’t think of any that outweighs people are suffering when they don’t have to be.

None of it makes much sense to me, so I guess I’m not super smart. I just wanted to get that off my chest. Thanks for letting me.

CHARITY: Well… The ball is in their court now.

RAMIREZ: I guess it is.

CHARITY: Charlie, thank you for joining us, please come back anytime.

RAMIREZ: I might just take you up on that. Oh, and Happy New Year!

CHARITY: And Happy New Year to you! We’ll be back after these messages with a report about the crisis in the Black Sea.

X: Agent Red, I’m activating the Icarus Protocol. Have operatives bring Mister Ramirez, Miss Feinberg, and anyone they’ve had contact with.

RED: Yes sir. 

(TEN SECOND PAUSE)

RED: Sir, the Icarus Protocol has failed.

X: How is that possible?

RED: Unclear sir, but Mister Ramirez is unaffected.

X: Our operatives?

RED: Unresponsive sir. But I am picking up some audio.

X: From Ramirez.

RED: No sir. I’ll play it for you, sir.

FEINBERG: I told you they were spying on us. You owe me a coke.

END TRANSCRIPT

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The Subject-Experimental Recovery

A.E.G.I.S. REPORT # 89H6-4K7-1Z

LOCATION: XXXXXXXXXX

PROJECT: November Delta Beta

DATE: December 30th, 20XX

REPORT-RECOVERED FILES FROM PROJECT REDACTED FROM DOCTOR REDACTED

11/1/20XX

We have extracted blood from the Asset when in powered down mode. Even the most powerful, conventional microscopes could not detect the quantum machines. We have used an electron microscope, and are able to get a visual. (Image attached) 

The machines are inert but we’ve been able to extract a sample. A series of tests are scheduled to implant them in mice and see if the QM (quantum machines) will be accepted by another host. We begin tests tomorrow.

11/2/20XX

Initial implanting of inert QM to mice was successful, there were no adverse reactions. The Asset is departing for a mission tomorrow and we’ll see if blood transfusion is a viable method for creating more Assets.

11/3/20XX

I’m disappointed to report that when the Asset was activated the mice had an adverse reaction. The QM consumed the mice from the inside out. It was hoped that the Occam’s razor theory might be workable but clearly, the people who built this revolutionary technology were very careful to not let it fall into the wrong hands. Not that we are the wrong hands. Also, I’m glad we did not name the mice.

We have tested their remains but QM appears to have become permanently inert. The samples in the Asset’s blood sample still seem viable. Our working theory is that the QM are encoded to each subject. Frustrating for us, but completely understandable.

The Coding Team is currently working on hacking the QM, though they dislike the term “Hacking,” for some reason. Weirdos. If they can find their way in, it is possible that we could replicate the process. 

11/15/20XX

After much work, the Coding Team has made “Contact” with the QM. Currently, they can send simple commands such as, rotate clockwise or move next to another QM. This may not seem like much but it is a HUGE breakthrough. Now that we can send simple commands, that are obeyed, the hope is that we can begin to understand how these QM work. 

If we weren’t in the middle of REDACTED, I’d say we all earned a night out. We’ll have to be satisfied with the potables we have been cleared for. Huzzah for the good guys!

11/17/20XX

Well, that was premature. While the QM obeyed simple commands, when given more sophisticated tasks, they detonated. Given their extraordinarily small size, it might be reasonable to assume that the effects would be invisible to the naked eye. Not true. There was substantial damage to the lab and the electron microscope.

The team was given a lengthy, let’s call it a lecture, about carelessness and the cost of state-of-the-art equipment. There was no mention of the danger to the team, until the end when REDACTED asked about it. I write this not as someone who is bitter about the lack of concern that our superiors have over our safety but as a scientist. Simply as a scientist.

FILES CORRUPTED 

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12/14/20XX

Something astounding has happened. The Asset was caught on the edge of a low-yield nuclear blast. That is not the astounding part, the fact that the Asset survived is the most astonishing part of this. We knew that QM could heal almost every disease and condition up to and including cancer but they prevented what should be a death sentence. The applications are staggering.

I saw the Asset when brought in and it was a horrifying sight. Any description I offer would not be adequate to convey what I saw. There are images and video files attached to this record but I cannot recommend viewing them. 

Fortunately, this is an opportunity to test, what the medical team is calling “The Baccta Tank.” An experimental gel designed to aid victims of severe burn injuries. The Asset is no longer screaming in pain so it appears to be working.

FILES CORRUPTED

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12/17/20XX

Doctor REDACTED was lost in the incident and I am attempting to go through their files and see what can be gleaned. Unfortunately, a large chunk was lost in the incident. 

However, I am hopeful that DNA residue left in the experimental gel bath may give some insight into the workings of the QM. A series of new tests will begin once the new equipment and personnel arrive.

Given what we now know, I am sanguine about the future. 

END TRANSCRIPT

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The Subject-Colonel Knowledge

Rise and Shine America!

BCA (Broadcasting Company of America)

Host: Allison Whittier

DATE: December, 27th, 20XX 7:33 AM EST

TRANSCRIPT

WHITTIER: Welcome back. We are talking with Colonels David Taylor and Jane Harris of the newly formed United States Enhanced Guard. Colonels, thank you for joining us.

HARRIS: Our pleasure.

TAYLOR: Thank you for having us.

WHITTIER: Let me just say, I’m loving the new uniforms!

HARRIS: People seem to like them.

WHITTIER: Very patriotic.

TAYOR: That was the idea.

WHITTIER: What can you tell us about the Enhanced Guard.

TAYLOR: Well Ms. Whittier, the shape of military technology has changed radically this year. 

HARRIS: We are here to make sure that the United States can protect themselves from those who might do us harm.

WHITTIER: Have you received any specialized training?

TAYLOR: Yes, while we both served, it was important to be able to use our new abilities.

HARRIS: It’s a matter of discipline and control. You need both when you’ve been enhanced.

WHITTIER: Charlie Ramirez has no military training but he seems to be able to use his new abilities quite well.

TAYLOR: First, let me just say that we both have nothing but respect for Mister Ramirez.

HARRIS: He’s a true American hero.

TAYLOR: I’d have to say, and this is just me speculating, he was already a disciplined individual.

HARRIS: Which is something we’re all grateful for.

WHITTIER: So someone without control would be dangerous?

HARRIS: Lack of control can be dangerous for anyone, enhanced or otherwise.

WHITTIER: True but an enhanced individual is effectively a weapon.

TAYLOR: A hammer can be used to attack someone or build a house.

WITTIER: Except a hammer can’t fling a car through a skyscraper.

HARRIS: We want your viewers, and all Americans to know that the members of the Enhanced Guard are here to protect you.

TAYLOR: That’s job one.

WHITTIER: What if you are ordered to fight against non-Enhanced troops? 

HARRIS: America is not currently in a state of war. 

WHITTIER: That’s not what I asked.

(FOUR SECOND PAUSE)

WHITTIER: Do you consider Enhanced soldiers to be the new nuclear deterrent? One of you could lay waste to anything a modern army could throw at you.

TAYLOR: We are not weapons, we’re people. It’s important that everyone understand that.

WHITTIER: Will you be taking part in relief efforts, like Charlie Ramirez and Sir Roger Clarke?

HARRIS: We serve at the pleasure of the President.

WHITTIER: Which means?

TAYLOR: Mister Ramirez and Sir Roger are private citizens and can do as they please. We must follow orders.

WHITTIER: Will the President order you to aid Charlie Ramirez?

TAYOR: Excuse me?

HARRIS: If and when he does, we will both be there on the double with smiles on our faces.

(THREE QUICK BEEPS)

TAYLOR: Excuse us, ma’am.

WHITTIER: Ma’am?

HARRIS: Duty calls. Thank you for having us.

TAYLOR: Yes, thank you.

(WHOOSH SOUND)

WHITTIER: You’re very- And they’re gone. Folks, they can really move THAT fast. We’ll be right back with Tina Tipton tips for a fancy New Years Party on a budget. 

END TRANSCRIPT

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The Subject-Why Lie?

Debra Feinberg’s notes. December 24th, 20XX

(This is my recollection of my conversation with Charlie after we met that psychopath sociopath. I have a pretty accurate memory, but I’m not mentioning where we were, just in case someone finds this. Who am I writing this for? I don’t know, maybe to myself? That sounds perfectly reasonable. Ugh.)

ME: Are you out of your Goddamned mind?

CHARLIE: I don’t think so.

ME: Because trusting her is crazy.

CHARLIE: I never said I trust her-

ME: -But you think she’s telling the truth.

CHARLIE: It makes a kinda sense.

ME: One of the first rules of journalism is to consider the source. She is an extremely unreliable source!

CHARLIE: I know.

ME: Do you?

CHARLIE: Deb, I understand why you’re cautious.

ME: I’m not cautious. Cautious is when you do a week’s worth of research on what new smartphone to buy. I’m justifiably paranoid.

CHARLIE: I’m not saying to take everything she said at face value but isn’t it possible that what she said was true?

ME: Very, very, very, very, VERY unlikely.

CHARLIE: That’s a whole lot of verys. 

ME: Please don’t be charming right now!

CHARLIE: You think… Sorry.

ME: Okay, let’s look at the facts. This woman destroyed a large part of downtown Flagstaff as well as a good chunk of the surrounding area.

CHARLIE: True.

ME: She then is whisked away by government agents from an unnamed agency.

CHARLIE: Where she is held in spite of her legal rights.

ME: Yeah…

CHARLIE: You don’t agree?

ME: I do! But she’s dangerous so I’m… conflicted.

CHARLIE: That’s understandable.

ME: Thanks. Anyway, this shadow agency, God I can’t believe I just said that, experiments on her and uses her as a weapon. And the reason they can do this is that there is a code that will nullify her enhancements which allows them to control her.

CHARLIE: That’s not right, even given what she’s done.

ME: She listed a half dozen “assignments” she was sent on. All those people she murdered are really dead, though the media clearly doesn’t know what actually happened. If she’s not just lying.

CHARLIE: Why would she lie? 

ME: She’s crazy.

CHARLIE: Maybe, but I don’t think she’s making it up. 

ME: I don’t either. I just wish she was.

CHARLIE: Me too.

ME: So now she’s on the run hiding from this shadow agency because they cannot turn her off anymore. It sounds like a cheesy old TV show. But that is just burying the lead. You have an off switch.

CHARLIE: That’s not great.

ME: No, it’s not.

CHARLIE: The government hasn’t used it on me, or even threatened to use it.

ME: Of course not, you’re the reason most people aren’t afraid of enhanced types. You stopped a literal super-villain. 

CHARLIE: I suppose so.

ME: So they don’t mention to you how they can take your abilities away with a few keystrokes. I’m sure they think of it as insurance if you ever went off the rails. Not that you ever would.

CHARLIE: It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

ME: Me too.

(We sat there for a bit, maybe five minutes? Honestly, I didn’t keep track.)

CHARLIE: She did tell us how to fix that.

ME: I don’t like it.

CHARLIE: I don’t need to get caught in a nuclear blast. A low-yield one.

ME: Adding low-yield doesn’t make it sound any better!

CHARLIE: I know! I not going to do that. 

ME: You better not.

CHARLIE: Scout’s honor.

ME: You were an Eagle Scout, weren’t you?

CHARLIE: I was. I mean, I suppose I still am. 

ME: So, according to her, it was the EMP that reset her quantum-level enchantments. 

CHARLIE: Does that make sense? Scientifically?

ME: No. Yes. Maybe? This stuff is way beyond anything we can do.

CHARLIE: Except, it isn’t.

ME: Except it isn’t. Honestly, I don’t know. 

CHARLIE: So it could work?

ME: It could. Or it could kill you. Or do nothing.

CHARLIE: I think it’s worth a chance. 

ME: I don’t know. I don’t trust her.

CHARLIE: She trusted us. We could’ve turned her in. Why put herself in more danger by talking to us. It would be smarter to just disappear. She had nothing to gain by telling me and everything to lose.

ME: You’re… right. 

CHARLIE: How can you get an EMP without a nuclear blast?

ME: Actually, that might be easier than you think.

CHARLIE: Really?

ME: I know a lot of scientists and engineers. I can make some calls.

CHARLIE: You are so cool!

ME: You should hear me sing Tom Lehrer’s The Elements.

CHARLIE: I’m kinda excited.

(At this point I kissed him and he kissed me back. Is it important to this story? It is to me.)

ME: Hold on.

CHARLIE: Do you want me to stop?

ME: Yes. I mean no, but something just occurred to me. That Christmas card, it had directions on where and when to meet her, right?

CHARLIE: It was pretty clever. The message was interwoven into the pattern on the card. Only someone like me could’ve read it. 

ME: Could you make a message like that?

CHARLIE: Oooph. I think you’d need some special tools to do that.

ME: So, whoever sent the message is working with her.

CHARLIE: Whatta ya know? A Chrismukkah miracle.

ME: It’s something.

(The rest is none of your business.)

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The Subject-Hide and Seek

A.E.G.I.S. REPORT # 89V7-X4D

LOCATION: XXXXXXXXXXXXX

PROJECT: November Delta Alpha

DATE: December 23th, 20XX

PHONE CALL TRANSCRIPT

BROWN: The Asset is still at large.

X: I know that Agent Brown. Please elucidate how this is possible, given all the precautions that were set in place.

BROWN: The override codes that controlled her enhancements no longer work sir.

X: How is that possible? While our very experienced engineers, physicists, and nanotechnologists have yet to understand even the basics of how this works, they did assure us that the override code was, as they said, “Baked in.” 

BROWN: Well sir, the working theory when the Asset was caught on the edge of that low-yield nuclear blast, the EMP, electromagnetic pulse-

X: I know what an EMP is.

BROWN: Of course sir. The scientific team has theorized that it negated the override code.

X: Theorized? 

BROWN: Since the Asset is no longer available to study, there isn’t more than they can do.

X: Keep them in isolation for now.

BROWN: Sir?

X: They may be correct, but there is the possibility that this was an inside job. 

BROWN: None of them know how it was done.

X: None of them has admitted to knowing how it was done. There is a difference.

BROWN: We did lose about thirty percent of the technological investigation team.

X: I’ve already ordered an independent investigation of the team, including the deceased. 

BROWN: Understood sir.

X: You were the Asset’s handler. Did she show any signs that might’ve prevented this?

BROWN: If there were, she concealed them expertly.

X: I’m disappointed that you missed any and all clues.

BROWN: I saw no clues, sir.

X: There are always clues.

BROWN: With all due respect sir, the Asset’s psychological profile showed sociopathic tendencies, including a disregard for human life, a complete absence of guilt or remorse, and as well as being a skilled liar.

X: In other words, the perfect agent.

BROWN: We didn’t treat her as such, sir.

X: If the Asset was tried in open court, they would’ve been locked away in the deepest, darkest hole for the rest of their life. As it was, the Asset was given multiple opportunities to indulge in their predilections for violence and do as service for their country.

BROWN: The Asset may not have felt so much recruited as blackmailed. 

X: Why didn’t you report this?

BROWN: I did, sir. You surmised that the Asset would eventually accept the situation.

X: They would’ve had this unfortunate incident occurred.

BROWN: Yes sir.

X: How is your arm?

BROWN: Fractured in multiple spots, thank you for asking sir.

X: You feel ready for duty?

BROWN: If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here, sir.

X: Good man. Any leads on the location of our wayward lamb?

BROWN: No living family, no friends to speak of. We’ve uploaded the Asset’s details to facial recognition data banks worldwide, as well as monitoring any incidents that match her unique skill set.

X: I’ll expect regular reports.

BROWN: Naturally, sir.

X: Time and tide Agent Brown.

BROWN: I’ll have an update within the hour, sir.

PHONE CALL CONCLUDED

NEW PHONE CALL

X: Agent Grey.

GREY: Yes sir, what can I do for you?

X: I’m sending you a file. Initiate a REDACTED Protocol.

GREY: Coming in now. (FOUR SECOND PAUSE) Sir, this is-

X: Indeed.

GREY: Is this a test sir?

X: If it were, you would be graded poorly.

GREY: Initiating REDACTED Protocol.

X: Thank you, Agent Grey.

END TRANSCRIPT

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The Subject-The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

A.E.G.I.S. REPORT # 89H6-V9X

LOCATION: Debra Feinberg’s Apartment, NYC, UWS. (Audio Only)

PROJECT: November Delta Alpha

DATE: December, 21st, 20XX, 20:23

RAMIREZ: So it’s not a Christmas tree?

FEINBERG: It is not.

RAMIREZ: But it is a tree in your living room. That you have decorated.

FEINBERG: That WE have decorated. You’re in this with me.

RAMIREZ: Okay, that we have decorated. But it’s not a Christmas tree. 

FEINBERG: Nope.

RAMIREZ: Then what is it?

FEINBERG: It is a Hanukkah bush.

RAMIREZ: A Hanukkah bush?

FEINBERG: I know you heard me.

RAMIREZ: I’ve done a little reading about Hanukkah and I didn’t find anything about a bush. Candles, oil for eight days, the Maccabean revolt. Nothing about a bush.

FEINBERG: It is a more recent addition to the holiday.

RAMIREZ: And the significance, spiritually?

FEINBERG: It’s more secular than spiritual.

RAMIREZ: I see.

FEINBERG: Good.

RAMIREZ: But you didn’t tell me the significance.

FEINBERG: Do you want the long story or the short?

RAMIREZ: Short.

FEINBERG: Christmas trees are fun and some Jewish people felt left out.

RAMIREZ: Isn’t that cultural appropriation?

FEINBERG: Well, the Christians stole it from the Pagans so I’m not losing any sleep.

RAMIREZ: Really?

FEINBERG: I research my justifications very thoroughly.

RAMIREZ: I’m impressed.

FEINBERG: As you should be.

RAMIREZ: Thank you for sharing this with me.

FEINBERG: Thank you for not judging my mishmash of holiday traditions and secular humanism.

RAMIREZ: It’s fun. And I’m learning stuff.

FEINBERG: Would you like to put the Star of David on the top?

RAMIREZ: I’d be honored.

FEINBERG: Perfect! All your training with Christmas trees really transferred over.

RAMIREZ: Phew! That’s a weight off my shoulders.

FEINBERG: You’ve worked very hard, so sit down and we can read through that large sack of Christmas cards you brought over. I’ll be right back.

(THIRTY-SEVEN SECONDS OF BACKGROUND PAPER SOUNDS)

FEINBERG: Here we go!

RAMIREZ: Eggnog, thank you!

FEINBERG: Take a sip.

(SIP SOUND)

RAMIREZ: Is this…

FEINBERG: It is.

RAMIREZ: Where did you find Rompope?

FEINBERG: In my kitchen.

RAMIREZ: You made this?

FEINBERG: I did and it was not easy. There were many, many trials and errors.

RAMIREZ: I’m so touched. I know you’re not a cooking person.

FEINBERG: True. But I do enjoy a holiday-themed beverage.

RAMIREZ: This is the best Chrismukkah ever.

FEINBERG: Look at you!

RAMIREZ: Look at us.

(ELEVEN SECOND PAUSE)

FEINBERG: Should we just throw these into the recycling and…

RAMIREZ: Very tempting, but is it in the holiday spirit?

FEINBERG: Hmmmm…I’m going to say yes.

RAMIREZ: They took their time to send cards, seems rude to just throw them away.

FEINBERG: I did said recycle them. (THREE SECOND PAUSE) Fine.

RAMIREZ: It feels like a long time since I got a Christmas card. Wow! Here’s one from REDACTED!

FEINBERG: Very tasteful. I’m surprised you didn’t end up with a warehouse full of cards.

RAMIREZ: Well…

FEINBERG: Shut up!

RAMIREZ: I don’t know if it was that many but people were sending me a lot. A lot of them got sent to the White House, for some reason. The staff was very nice about it but I don’t think they were happy.

FEINBERG: Did you carry it all away like super-Santa?

RAMIREZ: Ha! No. But I got on social media and thanked everybody who sent me a card or a present-

FEINBERG: You got presents?

RAMIREZ: -I asked people to send a card to someone who needed holiday cheer. Vets, nurses, teachers, delivery people. All those folks who keep things running and don’t get the thanks they deserve.

FEINBERG: You are painfully good. Wait, you’re on social media?

RAMIREZ: I set up an account so I could say stuff to a lot of people at once.

FEINBERG: Be very careful. The internet is a dangerous place.

RAMIREZ: No politics, no personal stuff. 

FEINBERG: And no opinions. 

RAMIREZ: Really?

FEINBERG: I’d warn you to stay positive but you’re always positive.

RAMIREZ: How is that a problem?

FEINBERG: Just be careful, okay?

RAMIREZ: I promise I will.

FEINBERG: You could hire someone to handle that for you.

RAMIREZ: Is that a job?

FEINBERG: You sound like my dad! Yes, it’s a job. I can help you get someone good.

RAMIREZ: Will they be painfully good?

FEINBERG: Hahaha. The only ones that are as good are you, Tom Hanks, and the Dalai Lama, and I’m pretty sure they’re busy. But I’ll find you someone ethical.

RAMIREZ: You don’t have to do that.

FEINBERG: Sweetie, I really do.

RAMIREZ: Okay, I trust you.

FEINBERG: Damn… That may be the sexiest thing any man has said to me.

RAMIREZ: Really?

FEINBERG: Yeah.

RAMIREZ: I’m glad I said it then.

FEINBERG: Okay, these cards aren’t going to open themselves.

RAMIREZ: It is kinda fun.

FEINBERG: A Chrismukkah miracle.

RAMIREZ: I’ll drink to that!

 FEINBERG: Feliz Jánuca!

RAMIREZ: Mazel Tov!

(GLASS CLINK AND DRINKING NOISES)

FEINBERG: Hey, here’s a card from REDACTED. They invited us to visit them at REDACTED.

RAMIREZ: That might be fun.

FEINBERG: That would DEFINITELY be fun!

RAMIREZ: This one doesn’t have a return address.

FEINBERG: SHIT! Don’t open it!

RAMIREZ: The government checked all of these out. They wouldn’t give it to me if anything was dangerous.

FEINBERG: Uhhh. I guess?

RAMIREZ: See? (RIPPING PAPER SOUNDS) It’s just a card, kinda abstract.

FEINBERG: It is pretty cool. Who signed it?

RAMIREZ: It just says, “A.F.” 

FEINBERG: Does that ring any bells?

RAMIREZ: No. Kinda strange.

FEINBERG: All the AFs I can think of are dead. Aretha Franklin, Arthur Fiedler.

RAMIREZ: Hold on.

FEINBERG: What?

RAMIREZ: Huh… 

FEINBERG: You know who AF is?

RAMIREZ: Do you trust me?

FEINBERG: Yes. Wow, I said that fast.

RAMIREZ: I’ll get your coat.

FEINBERG: This better not be caroling.

RAMIREZ: No, it isn’t.

END TRANSCRIPT.

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