Friday, November 30, 2012

Nanobots in the lawn.



Simone peered out the front window, wishing she was dressed. The yard man had arrived, disrupting the quiet serenity of her staid but upscale neighborhood. He got out and slammed the door as usual. Even through the walls she could hear the crackle of the radio speakers. Drat that man! But she was in no mood to be hurried, and if nothing else, their lawn was well looked-after.

While the service was expensive even by her standards, the people they sent around left a little something to be desired in the couth department. Suddenly, unable to control the impulse, she opened up the door, and stuck her head out awkwardly.

“Sir! Sir! Mister Fred!” She called out, but the man couldn’t hear her, apparently. She glumly closed the door, being fairly certain that the fellow wouldn’t have had the nerve to simply ignore her. With one more glance out the little peep-hole, she watched as he prepared to get to work. Then the lady of the house went back to her toilette; as this morning routine held great significance in determining her mood-of-the-day.

Outside, Fred as usual ignored the red-plastered stickers all over the tanks and equipment. He had been a licensed sprayer for ten years. Everyone had to sit through interminable safety meetings when they were hired, and once a year in the springtime, just before the season really got going. Usual nonsense; don’t drink it, don’t get it in your eyes, stuff like that. Do not apply directly to skin. Don’t snort it, he thought with a rueful grimace. In this job there was just no way you weren’t going to get some of the chemicals and stuff on you from time to time. There was simply no way around it. Thank the good Lord that it wasn’t liquid pig manure or something old-fashioned like that. Yesterday Fred had gotten splashed in the crotch, and it had been windy and cool, downright uncomfortable it had been. Luckily he kept a spare pair of coveralls in the truck, rolled-up under the seat.

The stuff he was applying to the Wheatley’s lawn today was the latest rage among suburban clients; who placed a high priority on carpet-like swaths of greensward. Some of them could be a little unreasonable in fact; expecting thick grass right up to the base of tree, where shade and a lack of rainfall made it almost impossible. Some of these people were nuts about the patchy sod up under the dry, leeward side of their homes. Fred couldn’t be expected to be there every day to water it. The homeowner had to do some work.

He winced as it came on the radio again, every twenty minutes so far this week.

Baytown was a small marketplace and radio air-time came cheap in a recession.

“Nanobots, nanobots, happy are we,

“Buy us once, and we work for free,

“Nanobots, nanobots, in your lawn,

“We kill the bugs, and their spawn,

“No more weeds, on a sunny day,

“Nanobots, nanobots, service all the way!”

“Buy ‘em once and never have to weed or spray your lawn again!” The announcer concluded, as the music faded away.

Fred Thorsen couldn’t get the company’s crazy little jingle out of his head. The forty-something single father of two little girls had a pretty na├»ve mental picture of a pill-capsule-shaped critter, complete with six metallic, double-articulated legs, and a couple of lenses on the front end. Tiny, mechanical, robot things, with funny-looking waving antennae. Yes; curved mandibles for gripping, and some kind of a stinger on the back end. The notion that they were built of molecule-thin structures was only of limited interest to the beer-guzzling, football and TV-poker watching Fred. Their spring radio blitz had just hit the airwaves, and the truck Fred had been assigned to could only pick up their local AM station, as the antenna was busted off. The guys at the shop said the things were so small they could crawl around inside your blood vessels and you would never know the difference. It was all just product to Fred.

This wasn’t the greatest job in the world, but it was the only one he had. When the company bought the franchise, they were supposed to switch over to shiny, specially-cooled metal tanks to keep out heat and sunlight. Okay, those tanks were very costly. But they didn’t do it—the owners were too cheap, or too stupid. It wasn’t Fred’s problem if the stuff went bad or something. Anyhow, it seemed to work pretty well so far, and if the customers were happy, then so was Fred.

All these thoughts went through Fred’s mind as he puttered about, getting gloves and funnels, wrenches and oil cans out of the big bin on the side of the truck. None of this was actually needed, but if you finished up your day too soon, they might find you another clutch of work-orders; and then you were sure to be late home for dinner. Fred would be having a couples of frozen Salisbury-steak TV dinners, eaten off of a plate instead of out of the shiny foil trays. With a couple of cold Black Label’s, a dinner a man could look forward to. Truth is, he liked those dinners.

Every freakin’ Friday, he had to attend the obligatory sales meeting, complete with coffee and doughnuts, as well as genuinely stupid motivational talks. Every week, one department or another had to put on a sketch, or a skit, or some kind of comedy act.

Banjo-playing clowns were pretty much done to death. The client service department’s turn was coming up in two weeks. Fred felt a sick sense of dread at the prospect. The company’s management wanted them to be like one big, happy family.

“A mom and pop atmosphere in the workplace.” It was in their mission statement.

As he unrolled the air hose to charge the tanks for the applicator; a nice green power source for the rotating distributor heads, he reflected for the seventeenth time that he wanted out. No one ever questioned it, but the air was compressed by electricity, which came from the very same place as everyone else’s did.

In spite of all the scientific, high-tech talk, it was one of the most boring jobs in the world after a while. Nanobots were the result of decades of scientific research, he knew, lifting the wide-mouthed screw-cap off of the semi-transparent white plastic tank. The slurry, or “applicate,” as it was referred to in lawn-care jargon, looked and smelled pretty much as it always did. It was its usual dull, olive or mossy green colour, and the reassuring aroma of fresh, wet, humus wafted up to his nostrils. There was just the slightest hint of ferment.

All seemed well, as he opened up the valves, and engaged the pump. He filled the tank on the remote unit right to the brim. This account, the Wheatley’s, had a frontage of seventy-five metres, and composed at least a hectare of beautifully kept turf, stretching out behind the long, lean, brown-brick ranch house, deceptive in its low lines, but it had to be twenty-five metres across the front, and almost cathedral-like inside. He had once been allowed to stand in the hall, and a rather imperious lady of the house had given him a tall glass of lemonade as if to prove that the plebeians were never far from her heart and her thoughts.

“Yes, she probably prays for me.” He chuckled at the thought.

The unmanned, powered applicator moved off the end of the ramp of the trailer, as he carefully guided it with the infra-red hand-held controller device; not unlike a modeler’s radio control unit. He could make it go anywhere and apply just about anything. The mid-range blaring of its pumps and rotors cut through the late May stillness. Fred lowered his hearing protection, grateful for the new lightweight hard hats the company was providing this year. Arriving at the nearest corner of the lawn, he paused the machine after careful alignment. Fred rolled up his sleeves, as the day was quickly warming up. That was the way of it, he thought, idly scratching an itchy spot on his left forearm, and continuing to meditate. First thing in the morning, it’s as cold as hell, then you get to sweat your backside off. Picking up the controller from on top of the applicator unit’s shrouding, Fred got down to brass tacks; and began to run the machine back and forth, around and around on the Wheatley’s extensive lawn. The itching on his left arm was still there.

Probably an early-season mosquito, the hard-working lawn-care man reckoned, not paying it another thought. The fact that when showering this morning; he had noticed a pretty big pink patch, the beginnings of a rash on his left thigh; had been completely forgotten. A big handful of Gold Bond had cured up that itch pretty well.

Poor old Fred didn’t know it, but he was already a dead man. The nanobots were built of organic and inorganic molecules. In order to be able to recognize organisms, the nano-computers that made up their brains were based on organic models. They had to be able to smell their prey, and differentiate between grass and weeds. In order to self-replicate like good little von Neumann machines ought, they had been designed to breed and to provide nesting and brooding care to their offspring. And it was crucial that they did not mutate, under the excess heat of the sun, with the sun’s rays filtered by the translucent plastic of the old-style tanks. Left too long in the heat of the day, their little nano-brains had become just a little bit scrambled, and their normal appetites had changed, to the extent that they were capable and even desirous of taking down some bigger game.

***

Simone heard a crashing thump against the outside wall of her private dressing room. She leapt out of her chair in front of the vanity. Clutching her peignoir closer around her throat, the lady stumbled a bit as she trod on one of Hank’s tattered slippers, always left in the same place when he was through dressing. She peered out through the sheer white nylon window covers of the back bedroom window, but could see nothing.

She clothed herself with one of Hank’s thick bathrobes, and headed for the kitchen, and the rear dining room doorway. She could hear the lawn man out there. The distinctive note of the cute little robo-tractor he used was close by the house. Sliding open the patio door, she idly wondered if he had hit a tree, meaning to speak to him about it. Simone’s landscaping efforts had recently been rewarded with an Honourable Mention in the local Master Gardeners annual photo contest, sponsored by a nursery in the local area. She had made page four in the lifestyles segment of the local daily. Quite a feather in her cap.

The yard man was nowhere to be seen, and nonplussed; she regarded the chuff-chuffing machine, as it rocked and vibrated about a half-metre away from her bedroom wall. While still running, it seemed to be in some kind of pause or readiness mode.

Shading her eyes from the glaring hot sun, she peered about. Where in the name of blazes was the lawn-care guy? Good help was so hard to find these days.

Her attention was drawn by a blood-curdling snuffling and moaning noise, guttural sobs, and incoherent mouthings from behind their three-car garage. Just as she was looking around for a stout stick, a weapon of some type before going out there, the whimpers rose to a crescendo. She stepped back through the open doorway.

“Hank? Hank!” she barked, hoping her husband would be a little quicker on his feet than usual…God, Hank was getting so slow and stupid these days.

The blood-curdling moans from the back yard made the hair stand up on the back of her neck. She felt a cold flush quiver through her from head to toe. The rush of fear quickly turned to anger.

“Hank!” she bellowed, infuriated. No response from the other room, barely nine metres away. Suddenly came the thud of footsteps on damp turf, and bursting out from behind the cover of the garage, what had once been Fred Thorsen ran at breakneck speed.

Simone stared, rooted to the spot.

Fred covered about twenty metres, and smacked face-first into the trunk of the biggest tree in the yard with a sloppy sound, like a gob of pudding falling out of the bowl and onto the floor. She gasped as the man flopped down into the grass. Simone was stunned by the fact that he had bounced. She noted her own objectivity in a kind of horror, as the man just lay there, so still, so limp and so flat—as if he were dead. She had never thought a man could bounce like that. The horror of it was numbing. She realized vaguely that she was in shock, and she thought maybe the lawn care man was dead…Oh, God!

“Hank! Hank!” She shouted at her husband, dozing in his chair in the front room, with yesterday’s and this morning’s papers all scattered around on the floor beside him.


End

This story also appears in the Spanish-language Axxon, as 'Nanobots en el Cesped.'   Top Photo: Wiki Commons. Willow Gabriel and Bob Goldstein. http://tardigrades.bio.unc.edu/   Lower: Wiki Commons. DBCLS. http://lifesciencedb.jp/resource_icon/icon.cgi?i=Echiniscus&t=L    

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Book Thief. A short story.

(Medici Library, Florence, Italy.)









“My Lord?” the deferential tone of a servant broke into Lorenzo’s reverie.

“Yes. What is it?”

“We’ve caught a thief,” Zacharias informed him. “Antonio has him in charge. What shall we do?”

“Who?” he said shortly.

“The Santoro boy,” Zacharias muttered. “I’m sorry, master. He seemed like such a good boy. It’s a little out of character. But these gutter-whelps are always needing money for something, always gambling, always falling into bad company—”

Yes, and sometimes they just grabbed a couple of loaves of bread and ran for home.

Lorenzo de Medici sighed deeply. Pietro was a pretty good prospect for one of the family businesses. The son of a recently-departed cousin, Lorenzo felt some familial responsibility. No matter how poor or distant the relations, and the Santoro clan was distant indeed, family was family. They were also very poor. Originally, that was a consideration, although he couldn’t take in every decent kid in spite of his considerable personal resources. Always a pretty good judge of character, he wondered anew at life’s little surprises. Had his almost-legendary eye for talent failed him? Thank God it was just a kitchen lad, then.

In spite of the huge array of papers and documents he was presently reviewing, some small spark of curiousity came over him. Why, he could not say. But first impressions were often lasting ones. And Pietro Santoro, a slender lad of about thirteen, had impressed him as a good kid.

“What did he steal?” he inquired. “Maybe he just got hungry. I remember at that age, I would steal a pie off a windowsill. And I thought nothing of burning my fingers, even my lips and my tongue! Half the time I had the money to buy my own.”

He grinned a little in fond memory. Zacharias smiled too. It was just as well that his master was in a relatively placid and contemplative mood this evening.

“If it was just a couple of cream buns, the cook would have taken care of it,” he allowed. “No master. He had your only copy of Tacitus in his possession.”

Lorenzo sat up then.

“Whoa!” he said. “Holy Mother of God! Was he trying to sell it then?”

Zacharias just shrugged and raised his hands with upturned palms.

“Who knows? He claims he was going to bring it back!” he reported to de Medici. “But it seems a little far-fetched.”

“Was he going to read it, then?” gasped Medici. “Bring me this boy. Immediately.”

“Yes, my lord,” Zacharias bowed, carefully concealing a small grin.

* * *

“What else have you read?” blurted Lorenzo when the child was brought before him, a frail and slightly-grubby looking kitchen boy, yet seemingly defiant in spite of being forcibly restrained by Antonio’s huge paw.

Struggling in the big man’s grasp, he was clearly prepared to run for it.

“All right, all right, Antonio, he’s not going anywhere,” he added. “Stand there, boy.”

The boy shrugged off the big manservant’s grip, eyes boring into his own. Lorenzo felt his jaw drop—such a burning intensity of desire, anger and something else—something else.

“It’s all right boy, no one’s going to hurt you. Now, what else have you read?”

The boy was silent, suddenly hanging his head now. Resigned to some uncertain but no doubt horrible fate. Revelation hit and Lorenzo understood.

“What did you think of Plotinus?” he said in a different tone.

The boy’s eyes came up and locked on his own, but still he would not speak.

The kid’s jaw stuck out so far in front…somewhere along the line this boy had learned to stick up for himself.

“Plautus? Terence? Aristarchus?” he asked.

“They’re all right,” said the boy, looking away.

Suddenly the kid was right back on him.

“Actually, a lot of it is nonsense,” he informed Lorenzo defiantly.

Medici tipped his head back and laughed, and laughed, and laughed.

Finally he collapsed into barely-suppressed giggles, falling back into his elaborately embroidered and upholstered wing chair.

“I like you, kid!” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll make you a deal. Are you interested?”

The kid shuffled his feet and couldn’t quite manage to look at him.

“Well. I’ll put it to you and then you can decide. How’s that?”

No answer, no eye contact.

“You have one week to read Tacitus. And then you bring it back in the exact same condition, all right?”

It took a while, but the boy finally managed to get it out.

“Yes, sire,” he mumbled.

“Other than that, promise you won’t be awake all night, reading until dawn or the cook will have something to say about that. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my lord,” mumbled little Pietro.

“Very well, then. We’ll talk later. Return to your duties, or go to your room, or something. Go out and play. Books are all very well, but there are other things in life too, you know.” said Lorenzo.

With a nod to Antonio, the interview was over. The big man’s hand touched the boy on the shoulder, and the three of them turned to go. Just as Zacharias was about to exit, Lorenzo called him back.

“Yes, my lord?” he inquired.

“Thank you, Zacharias,” was all he said.

With a smile, and a nod, and little tug on his lanky black forelock, Zach was gone.

For one brief moment of time, he did consider asking how long Zacharias had known about this boy, but thought better of it. Sometimes you just didn’t want to know. Sometimes it really paid off to accord a little respect to one’s servants. Lorenzo employed people like Zacharias for their knowledge and skills, for their facility with languages, and arithmetic. One would have to be a fool not to make use of it.

And it really didn’t pay to go around leaping to conclusions.

“People shouldn’t have to steal good books, just for the privilege of reading them,” he muttered aloud to the four square walls surrounding him; and was startled to discover tears welling up for no good reason whatsoever.

None that he cared to consider right now.

Yes. That thought bothered him for some reason. It resonated inside of him, like a finely-tuned musical instrument. And even at his age, he learned something new about himself every day.

When he had a minute, he would put some more thought into that. In the meantime, he had a lot of paperwork to get through, and then perhaps he might relax with a good book of his own.

Still thinking of Pietro with a small smile, Lorenzo de Medici got busy, for a man’s works define him in so many ways.

“A lot of it is nonsense? The boy has talent, all right,” he grinned.



Extinction Level Event.







































The asteroid travelled through deep space for a billion years, when it came into the orbital influence of a planetary system. In response to this new stimulus, it changed its course and headed towards an inevitable fate, perhaps one long overdue.

The first few times into and out of the inner system, it missed all of the planets, moons, and the star itself. Like a yo-yo, it went around and around, and in and out. Every nearby body bent its trajectory, some just a little, and some a lot. At this stage of the game, the odds were even that it would hit something. Or perhaps it would find its own home, and take up an orbit, and begin circling around the star just like any other body in the system. With its mass fighting against its momentum, there was one brief moment of time when anything was possible. But there was no escape. That brief moment occurred when the nearest other star body was on the far side of the system, relatively speaking in relation to the asteroid. If it had been on the near side of the system, its gravitational influence, small as it was, might have pulled the asteroid out into space again, with sufficient velocity to escape the system. It was not to be.

When the balance is so fine, even a feather can tip the scales, and with the accretion of several small comets, an asteroid or two, with the aggregation of dust, and particles, the thing finally became too heavy for its own good. A decision had been made, whether by mischievous spirits, or God in his infinite wisdom, predestining all things at the time of creation. Or perhaps some unconscious decision had been made by an indifferent Mother Nature. What had caused it makes no difference. A cause is a cause and an effect is an effect.

Millennia passed, and it finally found its mark. Plunging down past a trio of small, stony satellites, each snug and secure in their own familiar orbits, it hit the atmosphere, dense and deep compared to the hard vacuum around it. With its fiery mass streaming a tail of flame, it smashed into the unnamed planet, which wasn’t much bigger than itself, with enough force to shatter it.

The planet was about one and a half billion years old, and uninhabited. No animal life, other than small, unicellular creatures, sharing the characteristics of plant, animal and something else.

But their simplicity made no difference. Their fate was all the same.

Except for one. This one was different. While dormant in the cold winter months, this life-form was neither plant nor animal. With the extreme conditions, inimical to life at the best of times, the life-form had adapted. It had grown, and adaptively radiated, filling in ecological niches, and since there was little competition, it filled in all of them until it covered the planet.

With the brief flash of heat and light to stimulate activity, the spore-sacs opened, and began to gently drop their precious burden to the ground below. Summer was short, and there was much to be done. When the planet disintegrated, the spores had no ground to fall on. With the rushing winds, the vortex created by the wreckage of a planet, the little spores, the only hope of posterity for the life-form, found themselves floating in an unfamiliar environment.

To the spores it did not matter. They were designed, built, and adapted to prevail under the harshest conditions, and they went back into dormancy. While the greatest number of them perished, enough survived. Some of them had sufficient velocity to escape the system, as over time the asteroid was not the only object to impact or pass through the system, and the spores were subject to the attraction of bodies just like every other body in the universe.

More millennia passed; tens of millions of years passed.

And then one day, although the spores were completely unconscious of it, they began to speed up. Perhaps they were coming home, although they would not have recognized the word.

Every life form needs a home.


(Above photo: Comet Hale-Bopp, by Phillip Salzberger, Wiki Commons 2.0 Share-Attribution.)

http://salzgeber.at/astro/pics/9703293.html

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Excerpt: 'The Shape Shifters.'






























He withdrew deep into the recesses of his very being and got in touch with his actual, living soul, as he had learned, quite by accident, so many years ago. He withdrew from conscious thought and into the core of self, where the ego and the subconscious mind peacefully co-exist, at least when they are not at war.

His mind became a warm black pit, swirling with stars, galaxies, and everything in the cosmos, and he subsided into it, floating on a blood-red sea, where he contemplated the three most abstract objects, the red box, the blue sphere and the four-sided yellow-golden pyramid. His mind focused on the most universal of all abstract forms until he could pick them up and feel the weight of them, touching the hardness, the smooth-polished surfaces...

His head started to cave into his body. Proceeding slowly at first, the transformation accelerated. His feet withdrew and retracted up and out of his boots and into his pant legs. His hands disappeared up into his sleeves. His grimy clothes were seemingly half-empty now, writhing and twisting in and on and of themselves as if taking on a life of their own. A sock fell to the cold, wet floor beside his boots. A thin wisp of blue vapor rose up in curlicues and arabesque shapes in the dim light of the single forty-watt bulb. The clothing squirmed into a new shape on the chair, as the ropes fell limp and slack all around what remained of Jean Gagnon.


The Shape Shifters is available at Amazon and other fine online retailers.











Monday, November 26, 2012

The Second Coming.






































(Paul Keheler. Wiki Commons.)


Elmer Ray sat in the doctor’s office, impatient to learn the truth.

Was it cancer, or some other life-threatening disease? He mentally reviewed the facts, and disturbing indeed they were.

It was just five weeks ago, when he felt a little ill in the morning. The night before, he had consumed a few beers with the boys at Houlihan’s Bar and Grill, the culmination of a topping-off party thrown by Weiserman and Sons, Steel Structures, Inc. It was no big deal at first. Elmer resolved to show a little more restraint in future. He went to work as usual, and his wooziness had cleared up by noon. If it hadn’t gotten better, he would have been unable to eat a trio of greasy chili-dogs from the gut-wagon out in front of the building project.

Elmer needed food of any kind or he became hypoglycemic. He could have gone home for the day, no matter what anyone said. According to his union’s agreement with the Bayside City Structural Steel Contractor’s Association, he was entitled to six paid sick-leave days a year; and since he had never availed himself of them in anything other than an emergency, he was entitled to a day off if he felt bad. Luckily, it had cleared up.

Elmer was not known for ‘booking off,’ and took some pride in his physical and mental toughness, which many young men today seemed to lack. And lately he needed every penny he could scrape up just to get by. He must endure. To coddle himself was unthinkable.

It was only after a few days of the same nausea, queasiness, dizziness, sweats, and bouts of early-morning vomiting into the toilet, when he began to wonder if he had the flu. The flu was going around, as it usually did in late spring, when everyone’s psyche was at a low ebb, and resistance to it was weakened by lack of sunlight and vitamins.

Yet Elmer didn’t have any fever, there were no body aches, no sneezing, no snuffling, no throat or chest congestion. He decided to ignore it, and maybe it would go away. The usually well-balanced Elmer wondered if it was ‘psycho-somatic,’ which meant that it was all in your head. Was he depressed? Was it the result of three years of making mortgage-payments, paying alimony and child support, and never getting to see little Brucie, whom he loved half to death, although he had no way of saying it? His son haunted his mind pretty much all of the time, a source of sadness and frustration. But he had to behave, if he hoped to see him again. His own rent payments were always last on the list.

But maybe he was really sick. He would find out today. The first appointment, last week, Elmer was so grateful for someone to talk to; to unload all that angst. This time he would at least find out for sure. This time, he resolved not to let it all out in a rush, each sentence and every detail of the ordeal tripping over his lips on the way out the door. One way or another, whatever it was, he could deal with it. He would be a man about it, no matter how bad the news was.

Vomiting into the Porta-latrine hole was a nightmare, and one day last week the boss suggested he go see a doctor. Ned Gaines was in the next latrine, and he overheard the cursing, and gasping, and the other noises. Elmer wiped sweat from around his eyes and listened to Ned, grateful for any mercy at this point.

"It's probably just some bug in your gut, all you need is a good dose of antibiotics, and you’ll be right as rain in a week or two.” Ned was the structural steel foreman.

Ned was okay, for a boss-type. Elmer had never had any problems with him; and if he wasn’t the boss, and if he didn’t work for the company, they might have actually been friends. Even so, there was a kind of liking, and mutual respect, for what that was worth, between them. Ned had gone through three divorces; perhaps that had something to do with it. Seated at the same table at the topping-off party, they had traded jests, barbs, and observations on some of the other disparate, or as some said, desperate characters on the jobsite. It was a pretty good time, and Elmer had few friends these days. Yes, his ex-wife had gotten the house, the dog, the boy, their one good car, and all of their so-called friends, apparently.

Ned had patted him on the shoulder, and led him into the supervisor’s trailer, and stood there unhelpfully beside him, while he thumbed through the Yellow Pages and searched out doctors, most of whom were apparently not taking on any new patients.

They were especially not taking new patients in a hurry, he discovered—you might get an appointment in about nine weeks. Sitting in an emergency room for the next thirty-six hours simply wasn’t on the agenda. Finally Ned called his own family doctor, and fibbed, cajoled, and charmed them into giving Elmer an appointment first thing the next morning.

Elmer was having a hell of a time with the magazines in the doctor’s office, all these women’s magazines with pictures of food on the cover, and full of diet pills and weight-loss programs in the advertisements. Why would anybody read this stuff? A tall wheezing elderly lady came out of the back and headed for the glass-fronted kiosk where the receptionist waited to make another appointment. Elmer was glad Ned volunteered to call his own doctor, upon seeing the frustration on Elmer’s face, and perhaps guessing that Elmer was about ready to give up on the doctoring business altogether.

Doctor Ellwood’s attractive assistant came out and called his name, and he found himself staring at her backside as she led him down the hall. It had been too long. But what was a man supposed to do? What he had left after all the deductions from his cheque was enough to keep him in a flea-bag rooming house, and three squares a day, and maybe within a year, he could put a down payment on a good used car. But only if the work held up, and they were talking about a downturn in the economy. If he focused on all the negative things in his life, he probably would get depressed, and what good would that do?

“The doctor will be with you shortly,” she announced. “Please disrobe and hang your clothes up here.”

"Er,” he said, and she smiled demurely at him, and exited the room, closing the door with a firm ‘thunk.’

“All righty then,” he muttered, and did as he was asked.

He sat on the freezing leather-encased high bench with the metal stirrups on the end.

The scales in the far corner reminded him that he was putting on quite a bit of weight.

He had gained six kilograms in just the last few weeks. Why are doctor’s offices so cold?

One of the great mysteries of life, he figured. Was it really necessary to go through all the poking and prodding again?

He remembered once, years ago, when he had been forced to take off all his clothes and all he had was an ear infection. They do it to keep you humble, he decided glumly.

That way you have no illusions about your importance in the world. Sooner or later we all get sick. Pay up nicely or go to jail. That was the unspoken message in the inane cheerfulness exhibited by most medical people.

“There’s no escaping it,” he told the four walls, and just then the door popped open.

The white-clad figure of Doctor Ellwood entered the room. Elmer wasn’t one for long and effusive greetings, and was happy to find the doctor a like-minded individual. They shook hands briefly and then it was down to business.

“Why haven’t you gone back to your old family doctor?” asked Ellwood.

“Too much chance of running into the ex,” Elmer explained. “My ex has a restraining order on me.”

He went around to the house once too often, trying to talk some sense into Janie. Her lawyer was a real witch, a real man-hater. They had conspired to take him to the cleaners for the crime of being male, and being a good provider, and loving his family. Elmer had done everything in his power to make Janie happy, and if she wasn’t having none of it, whose fault was that?

“So you were married before, then?” asked Doctor Ellwood, eyebrows rising up into the unlined, smooth, yet barren forehead, or over-extended face, as some would call it.

“Thirteen years,” noted Elmer with some bitterness.

“Well. I’d like to put you in the hospital for a few days; just a few days, and run some tests on you, just as a precaution,” said the doctor.

Elmer felt a trip-hammer beating in his guts, as his heart-rate escalated. So he was really sick then. A hospital! His rent was due at the end of the week.

“Lucky for you, to be employed with someone who has proper medical insurance,” stated the doctor with a certain relish.

Elmer felt a sickening sense of dread. He had cancelled the health-care insurance just weeks ago, in some ugly urge to get back, to hit back in any way he could at the witch, Janie. And expensive as it was, the money he freed up by not paying it, was supposed to buy a car. Yet he had never had any respect for men who go around disparaging their ex-wives, calling them sluts and bitches and stuff like that. He often wondered why such people married in the first place. Surely it hadn’t started off that way. There must have been some love, some attraction in the beginning. Perhaps they had been drunk from the moment they met until the moment of revelation.

It suddenly occurred to him that the doctor was going to send him a bill, and it was likely to be a really big one, considering the upscale address, and the luxuriously appointed office they sat in. Forcibly, with an effort of sheer willpower, he dragged his attention and focus back to the present circumstances; while Ellwood sat watching the thoughts go through his mind and across his face.

“So, um, what exactly is wrong with me?”

God! Of all the rotten luck.

“Gall bladder? Pancreas? The spleen, perhaps?”

What Elmer didn’t know about the human body would have filled several shelves in a medical library. Still, he was aware that he was getting older, and no one was immune to illness. To his recollection, no one had ever died of nothing before. The bland-faced doctor chuckled, peering over at him above the rims of his half-glasses.

Well, I wouldn’t call it wrong, exactly,” he murmured, looking down at the paperwork again.

“It’s just different,” he added in some strange emphasis that only he could understand.

“We call it morning sickness,” said the doctor; as if that explained just everything.

Elmer lost patience, and he wasn’t in the mood for jokes, as the significance of this statement slowly sank in. He sat up straight on the bench, leaning forward so as not to miss a word of information.

“Would you mind telling me just what it says on those little pieces of paper, Doc?” He grunted, biting back further commentary, including speculations as to the doctor’s antecedents, and the breeding habits of his parents and other ancestors.

“Congratulations, and I’d like to meet your regular doctor, sometime. You’re pregnant.”

Thus announced the good Doctor Ellwood; with a smile of pure, unsolicited joy Elmer found himself standing at the side of Doctor Ellwood’s desk, hovering over the man as he cowered there in sudden, uncomprehending shock. Fists balled up, shoulders hunched, chin thrust forward, Elmer’s red face and neck bespoke an unmistakable message. His naked savagery made it even more surreal, more bizarre.

"Just exactly how did that happen?” he bellowed at the man in a kind of frustrated, berserk rage. “You think this is funny? You think this is some kind of sick joke? I’ll pound your stupid head in, you crazy moron!”

There was a long moment of shocked silence.

Elmer turned and stalked towards his clothing, aware that he had just blown his cool in some irrevocable way, and that voices and footsteps were coming down the tiled hallway in one heck of a hurry. Elmer jammed his feet in his trousers and threw on his shirt. Grabbing his boots, he ripped open the door, to find three or four of them standing there. Nurse, receptionist, security guards from somewhere in the building…they all stood gaping at him, as he shoved his bare feet into his unlaced work-boots, and put his jacket on over his still-open shirt. He jammed his socks into the jacket pocket, they could wait until he was clear of this mad place.

“Get out of my way.” They all shrank back, allowing him through.

He turned for one last look, at the ashen face of Doctor Ellwood, half out of his chair in some late and forlorn desire to protect his turf and his employees.

Doctor Ellwood sank back into his chair, all thought of remonstration and further physical examinations gone.

“I’ll get you, you freaking nut-case, if it’s the last thing I ever do,” he told them all.

Then he strode out of there, his mind reeling from the shock. It was only when he got outside the building onto the pavement that he began to wonder if it really was some kind of a joke, and if he was on ‘Candid Camera,’ or if he was being punked for some stupid TV reality show. He stood on the sidewalk and buttoned up his shirt, ignoring the passers-by.

Pregnant. Holy bejeebers. His rage, once unleashed, remained stoked. Stress had been building up for far too long, he realized. He walked to Johnson’s Park, sat on a bench and tried to think things through. It took him quite a while of internal wrestling to calm down, and try to be rational, and to see the humor in the situation. The doctor had maybe picked up the wrong documents, or the lab sent the wrong stuff over, or whatever.

He had no other explanation. Maybe it wasn’t the doctor’s fault after all, but strangely, Elmer felt no shame at his outburst. It had been too long coming already now. In a way, his little outburst felt pretty good—in retrospect, and with a shiver of adrenalin in the guts when he thought about it.

One thing for sure, he couldn’t mention this to anyone at work—they’d never let him live it down. As he sat there thinking, he realized that men could become pregnant now.

It was on CNN. The world’s first pregnant man was interviewed on ‘Larry King Live,’ complete with his wife, and his kid; and the gentleman was apparently knocked up again.

The jokes on the job were predictably coarse. Elmer himself hadn’t speculated too much about it, in fact he was wishing he had listened a little more closely.

Elmer hadn’t paid much attention to the news coverage, but one of the plumbers onsite had some crackpot theory.

“They stick a needle in behind your navel, and implant an embryo on the back of your belly-button,” which seemed about as good an explanation as any. “And then nine months later, they cut it out using a Caesarian section,” and Elmer was familiar with the scar, at least, as that was how Brucie was brought into the world.

It made a weird kind of sense.

“Men have breasts, or at least nipples, and if you think about it, the navel is the only vestigial placental body in the male…” or so the fellow’s half-baked theory went. “Then they pump you full of hormones and off you go.”

Dick Scoderman was something of a pundit, and had a pseudo-intellectual way of looking at things. Anyhow, the thing was clearly impossible, and he was sure he would remember something like that, and basically; he needed to find another doctor; if that was possible anytime soon. Suddenly Elmer felt the rage coming back. This sort of thing was nothing to joke about. A second opinion, he decided, that’s what he needed: a second opinion. Elmer decided not to show up at work today, as he needed to make a slew of phone calls and get himself another appointment.

* * *

A few days later, another doctor, one whose office wasn’t nearly so nice as Ellwood’s, told him the same thing. Although Elmer was a little better prepared for it, it still came as a shock when the unthinkable happened yet again: Doctor Ram Pangnirtung assured him it was true.

“Yes, you’re pregnant all right. The blood doesn’t lie.” he marveled. “I’ll send you to the lab for more tests, but at this stage in the first trimester, there’s really no need for you to be in hospital. Are you strong? In general, are you in a pretty good state of health?”

Cheerful, yet intent, and definitely interested, Doctor Pangnirtung studied the man before him.

“And you’re telling me that you have no idea how this happened?” he asked again.

“No!” barked Elmer to the unflappable Doctor Pangnirtung; who just grunted and took it in stride.

“Well, I’m not a lawyer or anything, but if you can prove that someone did this to you, there might be legal redress. Parthenogenesis is not unheard of in the plant and animal kingdoms, and in the history of evolution, there must have been a time when all reproduction was asexual…”

“P-p-partheno-what?” gasped Elmer. “For Christ’s sakes, Doc, speak English!”

"Asexual, spontaneous generation of offspring,” explained the doctor. “But in humans, and especially in a male, it seems clearly impossible.”

“What do you mean, seems?” asked Elmer in some inner psychological pain. “And you’re telling me that I have to prove someone did this…yet that seems, um; self-evident.”

“Hmn. Not to a jury, or in any Canadian courtroom, perhaps,” noted Pangnirtung.

“Quite frankly; nothing is self-evident in a Canadian courtroom. Anyway, if you think someone did this to you against your will, and without your knowledge, maybe you should try contacting the police. The good news is, this explains your sudden weight gain over the last few weeks.”

“Oh, God,” groaned Elmer. “This just keeps getting better and better.”

“I can assure you that you will receive the finest medical treatment that money can buy,” he heard through the insistent roaring in his ears.

Elmer got up and walked out, knowing that he couldn’t keep on threatening doctors and the like, as they were very high-status individuals, and he couldn’t get away with it forever. As he exited the building onto the gritty streets of the lower South End, he saw that the sun was out and springtime was in the air. The police! That was a quick road to the depths of hell, he thought dismally.

Yes, and he could well imagine Doctor Pangnirtung picking up the phone and having a long talk with Doctor Ellwood. But the cops were the worst. Some jerk down there would pick up the phone, and for fifty bucks he would be on the horn to the tabloids in a heartbeat; and to hell with people’s right to privacy. Cops got away with everything, he thought, with his heart sinking and his mind going full blast in some kind of uncontrollable vortex of pain, and misery, and despair.

Who in the world would do this to him? Who could have done this to him? None of this made any sense. When did they get the opportunity? How was it done? How had they managed to put a fetus inside of him—perhaps embryo was a better word—and when had it happened? As for why…why? That one was also unanswerable.

The thought, unbidden, came into his head; and for the first time in his entire life, Elmer contemplated suicide. He recognized that this had never happened before, and that what he had thought of as a pretty bad life, bad life circumstances, had been as nothing compared to this. Elmer wandered the familiar streets of his youth in a kind of daze. Now he knew what it meant to feel like he had been raped…is this what women fear? Yet he had no memory of it. The bitterness, the feelings of worthlessness…suicide seemed an attractive prospect, he had to admit it.

His life in the boarding house, the greasy-spoon diner where he habitually ate, the payments, the fact that he never got to see his son, all that had seemed so harsh just a few days ago. But right now he’d give up one of his kidneys if he could just go back to that previous life and forget all this. Lord, he would give up a lung, a kidney and an arm and a leg, if he could just be allowed to go back to the way things were…Elmer didn’t own a gun, but he could always jump off a bridge. For the moment he toyed with the notion of jumping off the financial towers that the company and their sub-contractors were building. But why? They hadn’t done anything to him…right? It was just irrational anger.

And then he thought of Brucie, and all this thinking stopped being anger, and all about himself. What would Bruce think? Ten years old, what would they tell him? Them.

What would they say about him? All Elmer could feel right now was fear…hate…dread…despair…and a kind of anger that just wouldn’t quit. Perhaps that anger wouldn’t let him quit. Perhaps that anger was all that could save him.

My anger shall sustain me…

Before he took the easy, short road out, he wanted to find the people who had done this to him. First he would kill them in the slowest and most painful way he could think of. Then he would cut them up in little bits and scatter them to the four winds. He could always kill himself later, even in a jailhouse if necessary. He resolved not to let those creeps get away with this one. Whoever they were. This emotional roller-coaster ride was getting the better of him. It was hard to think with all this going on inside of him.

But there were only a limited number of possibilities. Was it really possible, that he had somehow done this to himself? And then fallen victim to a kind of amnesia, one that allowed him to remember his name, and where he lived, and the fact he had a job to go to? That possibility was quickly dispensed-with. When had he taken time off work to get the job done? The simple answer was that he hadn’t.

This begged the question of when had anyone else gotten to him, in order to carry out such a procedure? That one just didn’t seem very credible, for reasons he couldn’t quite put into words. And Elmer didn’t believe in aliens, and flying saucers and the like.

It must have been the party! Now, the weeks-long hangover suddenly made sense.

What other possibilities were there? Thank the good Lord he had some kind of a brain to think this through. But the notion of some kind of virgin birth didn’t hold water.

The idea that it might be the Second Coming of Christ was just plain ludicrous, and the unlikely event of the coming of the Anti-Christ really didn’t hold much water to a logical mind, and a secular sort of mind, such as he possessed. This whole darned thing was just plain crazy. He suddenly wondered about the government. Or some big multinational corporation somewhere. One way or another, somebody somewhere was mucking around with his head, and his body. When he put it into those terms, he knew that sooner or later, they had to reveal themselves. It was a logical deduction. One way or another, it had to happen. When that day came, he had better be ready. He might only get the one chance. Perhaps a really big gun wasn’t such a bad idea after all. He didn’t have to use it on himself, after all.

In fact, it seemed like a very, very good idea. He had heard once that suicide was just redirected aggression, for normal, ordinary people couldn’t cope with murderous thoughts, and they were frustrated by their inability to deal with aggression from their superiors.

“We’ll see about that,” he decided, speaking aloud on his park bench and startling a lady jogger as she puffed past in the cool spring sunlight, with a few of last year’s dead leaves skittering around her feet in the gusting wind.

* * *

Not far away, across town, in a three-story brownstone house, roof bristling with exotic antennas and dishes, a big fat man sat inside a splendid oak-paneled office, behind a mahogany desk. The smell of fresh-cut flowers was in the air, and the oppressive silence so thick it could be cut with a knife.

The phone buzzed and a pudgy, languid hand picked it up. A homely grunt was all the greeting the fat man gave. The officer-of-the-day of ‘the Brethren,’ a shadowy organization dedicated to the peaceful religious liberation of humanity, wasn’t known for amiability. Recognizing the voice, Doctor Pangnirtung disregarded the daily code word exchange protocols, and went ahead with his report.

“He’s taking it pretty hard,” he informed his control and command contact. “For the time being, he’s staying at the boarding house. He just doesn’t have the money to go into a clinic.”

“We’ll keep an eye on him,” said the fat man.

“I tried to get him to go to a publisher,” said the Doctor. “I sort of hoped the idea of a four or five-million dollar advance might pique his interest, but…”

The good doctor was concerned for the welfare of the unborn child, naturally so.

“I’m sure you did your best, doctor,” purred the fat one. “We won’t let anything bad happen to Elmer, I promise you that. In any case, our business is concluded, and we’ll deposit a rather large sum of money into a Swiss account for you—”

“I haven’t been able to contact Doctor Ellwood for the last week,” Doctor Pangnirtung informed the fat man. “His answering service says he has moved his practice to Argentina!”

“Yes, yes, well. We have to say something you, know,” the other man stated blandly. “Think of it as a cover story. The Council has a very high regard for Doctor Ellwood, and is very grateful for his service. Think of it as a promotion. They also have their eye on you.”

“I don’t want to be a member!” gasped the Doctor in dismay.

All he wanted was to be let alone by these people—they had promised, after all. For him, the money meant nothing. He just wanted these mysterious people, these voices on phones to go away.

“Really, it’s just an honorary thing, although there are a few important benefits, a kind of group life insurance, for example,” purred the fat one. “Still, we can think on it for a while, and talk about it later.”

“Wait!” exclaimed Doctor Pangnirtung, “Mister Ray is coming back next week. He’s got another appointment.”

“Yes, yes, very good, doctor,” murmured the fat one.

He spoke clearly and succinctly now. “Can you hold the line, please? I have another important call coming in…perhaps you might care to listen to some recorded instructions on how to access your account?”

The fat one heard a deep, expressive sigh from the other end of the airways.

“Yes, go ahead,” muttered the doctor in a tone of abject resignation.

On the doctor’s affirmative, he carefully pushed a small button on his elaborate desk-phone set-up, and then tapped in a brief eleven-digit code. Far, far away across the city, a small but powerful charge of a top-secret military explosive drove a cluster of high-carbon steel ball bearings out of the inner recesses of the doctor’s desk phone hand-piece and into his skull, killing him instantly but harming no one else in the immediate vicinity. ‘The Brethren,’ were careful about leaving tracks, and one day, all the world would bask in the reflected glow of their divine and peaceful revelation. Until then, one couldn’t take too many precautions.



































Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Frenchman.

(Morguefile.)
Mr. Staples wobbled alarming as he stood on the wrong side of the window.

“We just want to help you, sir.” Constable Dan Knebworth had seen it all before.

“I don’t want any help.” Bob Staples shouted back.

Bob’s eyes, white and terrified, rolled over and he took a quick look. Twenty-five stories, straight down.

“Can you tell us what the problem is?” Constable Janine Knox wanted to help. “Maybe we can help you with it.”

Bob looked down again.

“No one can help me.”

He seemed quite lucid, and he wasn’t ranting and raving, or threatening anyone. They might be able to talk him down.

“Well, at least tell us what’s going on.” Constable Knebworth was known for patience.

“You’ll just laugh, and say it’s nothing, but it’s not nothing.” Mister Staples, white knuckles visible as he clung there, shouted hysterically.

“See, now you’re not making any sense.” Knebworth kept trying.

“We promise we won’t laugh.” Janine was very empathetic. “Can you tell us what’s going on? Why are you doing this? Surely nothing can be that bad, why, there’s nothing so bad that you can’t deal with it…”

“Fuck you.” The subject was extremely upset about something.

“There’s still time to think about it. My name is Dan. Can you call me Dan? If nothing else?”

Mister Staples uttered a deep sigh, closed his eyes, and he was going to do it. At some risk to his own safety, Dan reached over and grabbed the man’s jacket, thankful that it was thick and strong and properly fastened.

“In you go, sir.”

Janine clung to his belt as he gave a good heave.

***

Once they had him in the hospital ward, locked in solitary for three days of observation, they had a brief chat with the senior nurse.

“He says he’s turning into a Frenchman.” Janine snorted. “He doesn’t look doped up.”

“Suicide attempt, eh?” Nurse Henrietta Endercott filled in a form. “Must be some deep underlying issues…”

“He’s all yours.” The pair of cops had done their duty.

Henrietta glanced at the clock and the reports lined up in a row on the countertop. Doctor Chickadee would be in momentarily.

In the monitor, Robert Staples was lying on the bed, on his left side. He was weeping. He had made no effort to resist, did not lash out with hands and feet, and in general was polite but upset.

***

“So, tell me your troubles.” Dr. Chickadee was a West African with the most cultured Oxford accent.

A pet phrase, one he stumbled upon just out of school. He had hung onto it ever since.

“Somehow, I am morphing into a Frenchman.” Bob was miserable.

“What makes you say that?”

“Listen to me! Look at me!”

“Well, a little bit of an accent maybe…” Dr. Chickadee’s admission came readily. “We’ve never met, so…”

“Look at all these gestures. I’ve never been to Quebec in my life!”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“You see! Now you’re doing it.” Bob was getting angry, with the red creeping up his face and neck.

“Okay, okay. So you are not French, then?”

“No!” Bob bellowed at him. “I’m not French, I have never been French, and I don’t want to be French! It’s not going to happen.”

“So you want my help.”

“No, I want you to kill me, you stupid bastard.”

“I see. That’s very strange, but you seem remarkably French to me…”

In a trice, Bob dove across the table and had his hands around Chickadee’s throat.

***

“He claims that he is an ‘Anglo,’ which is a word I have never actually heard used before.” Dr. Chickadee explained as best he could. “He was born in Toronto, but there are French speakers in Toronto.”

Dr. Pelman was reading about his parents, Robert senior, and his mother, Mrs. Betty Staples.

“These personality-displacement disorders are nothing new.” Doctor Davis Pelman was a mentor. “For some reason he can’t stand being himself.”

“On the face of it, he was having a pretty nice life before. Good job, wife and three kids. Nice home. He insists there was nothing wrong in his life and he wants it back, which is a good sign.”

“They are usually sophisticated enough to lie.” Davis had seen much in twenty-five years, as he went poring over every little bit of information in the file. “So your patient is six-foot one? Interesting.”

“What?”

“In the original report he is listed as six-foot-one, yet my examination shows him to be five- eleven…it’s not unheard of to take a wrong measurement, but usually it’s the other way around—people turn out to be a half inch or an inch taller than the record.”

“So?”

“Well…it occurs to me that the average height of a person living in France probably is somewhat shorter…but it probably is just a mistake. I mean you could never prove it, either way, to anyone’s satisfaction.”

Davis had an odd, disbelieving grin on his face, noted Chickadee.

Dr. Chickadee knew this was due to people slouching, for in some ways to be measured and documented was very demeaning to the average person. They were just trying to help them, and no one really liked it, but accurate records must be kept in order for the staff to cover their backsides in the event of a successful suicide attempt. Unkempt records were alarming to the liability insurance people and their lawyers.

“I’ll speak to the senior nurse about that.” Chickadee added to his case notes. “He says he thinks like a Frenchman now, and he says that he even thinks in French. But, in a nation where every product is labeled in two languages, he probably has some kind of subconscious database of knowledge. His pronunciation seems fine to me, but then, I don’t speak French.”

The other just nodded, studying the file.

“All right, I’ll take him on for a while.” Davis smiled in reassurance. “I don’t know how helpful I can be, but I will try.”

“Thank you. Honestly, I think he’s still a threat to himself and others.”

Davis nodded in appreciation of the facts.

***

Bob sat across the desk from Dr. Davis Pelman.

“Have you ever been to France?”

“Non!” Then his face flushed. “I mean, no.”

“Are any of your relatives French?” Doctor Pelman realized it sounded like a stupid question. “I mean like a grandmother, or some other relative by marriage?”

“No.” Bob enunciated very carefully.

“Are you sure?”

Bob let out a breath.

“I don’t recall anyting like dat.” He started turning beet red again.

“What are you going to do if we can’t help you?”

“You better be able to help me.” Bob scowled. “You fucking bastards keep me in here long enough…”

“Yes?” Doctor Pelman inquired politely, suspecting the answer before it came.

“I fuckin’ kill you.”

***

“Can you tell me what you had for breakfast this morning?”

“Shit.”

“No, Robert, you know that’s not right.”

“I didn’t eat nothing.”

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” Doctor Pelman was finding it hard going.

“That’s why I won’t eat it. I don’t want your stinking, fucking shit breakfast. I want to be me.”

“I admit the food isn’t too palatable, and it’s never very hot, but you really must eat something once in a while.” Doctor Pelman had concerns. “We’ll force-feed you if necessary.”

“I rather die than a be a somebody else. I bite you’re a-fuckin’ hand off. Tabernac.”

***

Dr. Chickadee and Dr. Pelman went over the case notes.

“Wow.” Doctor Pelman was definitely intrigued. “We’ve got ourselves a real humdinger here.”

“His weight has stabilized. Holy shit! His height is now five-nine?” Chickadee’s jaw dropped.

Davis Pelman nodded shortly.

“Fascinating, simply fascinating.” Pelman muttered. “Now, if you sort of asked me if one could prove the loss of height, in an otherwise physically healthy, otherwise normal male of thirty-seven…holy, crap.”

“We’ve been at it long enough. How about some dinner?” Davis had a good idea there.

Chickadee was single and Davis was divorced, and it was no big thing to phone up a chic local restaurant and make reservations.

***

While the Staples case was interesting enough to dominate dinner-table conversation, the pair talked about other subjects as well.

Doctor Chickadee realized just how hard he had been working and that he needed a night off once in while.

It was an enjoyable meal, in nice surroundings, such a change after the cafeteria! Or frozen dinners and stuff eaten off the coffee table.

The next morning dawned bright and clear. It was a fine day in the neighbourhood.

Stepping out to get the morning paper from the mailbox, he saw Mary-Ann, his neighbour.

“Hello, Doctor Chickadee.” She called over brightly, waving as she put the kids in the car.

“Bonjour.” Chickadee spoke the word, much to his own surprise, but she just gave him a happy look and went on with her business.

Yes, this patient was definitely getting to him!

“Oh, golly, I have been working much too hard.” Doctor Chickadee gave a Gallic shrug.

***

“Maybe it's infectious.” Doctor Chickadee was at a complete loss to explain it.

“Nonsense.” Doctor Pelman was firm.

He had to admit, it felt a little queer to examine a fellow physician. Although they all had other doctors on their patient lists, the people never seemed to come in for an appointment. It was like they feared periodic checkups by a fellow professional, but considering the stress of the job, maybe that was understandable.

“Nom de Dieu! What in the fuckin’ hell are we going to do?”

“I would like to know what causes this. In the meantime, we should take full prophylactic measures.”

“What does that mean?” Of course, Chickadee already knew the answer.

***

For lack of a better plan, Doctor Chickadee took a room after some persuasion, in the mental wing of their very own hospital.

Oddly enough, the Doctor had never spent any time in an isolation cell, and he was surprised by how hard on a person it was. Why, if he were to be kept in here long enough, he was certain that he would go mad, and perhaps even become violent. Thank Christ, but it was just for the overnight hours, and that they let him out during the day.

It shocked the doctor, the fact the place had no books, or magazines, or anything but one TV set for eighty people, a TV set inevitably tuned and then locked to the most mindless programming, stuff like Regis and Kelly, Heartland, and Fox News.

At some theoretical level, now he knew how abusive it was to place a person in there…it felt like punishment. He had to admit. People saying otherwise just sort of riled him up. When he got out, he planned to write a paper on the subject. If nothing else, as part of their training, doctors, nurses, and police officers really should spend a few days in there…it might smarten them up.

The worst thing was, that Doctor Chickadee continued turning into a Frenchman, albeit a black and very well educated one. But he was becoming a Frenchman nevertheless.

***

“I have good news.” Doctor Pelman regarded Chickadee.

“Oh, nom de Dieu.” The doctor turned patient was pretty desperate by this point.

Davis was silent.

“What’s the bad news?” Davis just lowered his eyes and looked at the papers.

“We think that you and Mister Staples consumed pate from a radioactive goose. You and a few others, actually.”

“Others?” Chickadee gasped in dismay. “How many others?”

“Everyone who had that fuckin’ pate, you know?” Doctor Pelman made a Gallic shrug and a gave a flounce of the head.

Doctor Pelman looked very sad.

“You were pretty fuckin’ hungry,” He answered Chickadee’s unspoken question. “I only had one little fuckin’ cracker!”

“Eh? So…?”

“Tabernac! With me, maybe it take a little longer, eh?” Davis Pelman’s eyes smouldered. “Moudzie! By gar, and I don’ like this one liddle beet.”

Mouth open, Doctor Chickadee stared across the table, rendered speechless by this revelation.

“What’r you gonna do?” Davis shrugged. “Maybe it’s only, like, temporary, eh?”

Upon this revelation, Doctor Chickadee slumped onto his arms, folded on the tabletop in front of him and put his head down and cried.

***


Here are more books and stories on Barnes & Noble.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Cyber Security TIps for Writers and Other Professionals.

(Morguefile Photo.)

Spurious E-Mails.

We’ve all gotten those spurious e-mails from Burkina Faso where someone who is barely literate would like us to help them get $10.5 million dollars. The e-mail goes on to mention a plane crash in the jungle, and how the doctor, or the cabinet minister or the president, or alternatively the rebel leader, was the sender’s father, and how they need help getting the money from the Bank of England. It was stashed there by their corrupt government when the money was recovered, and they’re holding it for the rightful owner, but unfortunately they can’t properly identify themselves as they are destitute except for their computer…and they are rebels.

All you have to do is give them some personal banking information, and they’re willing to give you half the money because you are such a good and kind-hearted person. Some of these e-mails are fairly creative in terms of storyline. I’ve been tempted to steal that one about the Princess in the Somali refugee camp and her dad the rebel in the hills overlooking the capital city working to free the people from tyranny.

Most of these probably don't even come from Burkina Faso.

Masquerading.

Lately I’ve seen e-mails purporting to be from Chase Manhattan, Wells Fargo and others. These have a document attached to them and they want you to click on it to see the details of ‘your account.’ I don’t have an account there—kind of a dead giveaway, but logic doesn’t seem to play much role in the typical e-mail scam. I never click those documents. Never. A while back I got a spurious one from Pay Pa1.

There was a warning that if I didn’t update my account information immediately, ‘I could lose my account.’ So there is always a call to action, and from the point of view of the scammers, the more immediate and the more important-sounding, the better. I never respond to any spurious e-mail ever. While they already have your e-mail address, for all I know they might be able to get your IP address—allowing them to masquerade as you, and responding may give them other clues, more personal information, and it could even turn into a dialogue. If you had a soft head, they might go to work on you with persuasion. One e-mail claimed to be from a friend, on vacation far away, and how she had lost her phone, and she needed $1,400.00 to pay the hotel bill and fly home as their tickets were stolen too. Yet we had never really talked. It was a non-relationship, which are common enough these days.

What gave that Pay Pa1.com one away was the e-mail address of the sender. It was: PayPa1.com etc, etc. But what looks like the ‘l’ is actually a ‘1.’ The difference is pretty subtle, but of course Pay Pal already had that address sewn up. The scammers couldn’t use it. When I looked at the image/e-mail again, it was fuzzy and indistinct in some ways. It was a bogus copy, a sort of reconstituted screen shot of a Pay Pal e-mail. (The author is not an expert. –ed.)

Red-Hot Lovers.

Lately I’ve seen quite a few e-cards from red-hot lovers, again they have something they want you to click on. No one loves me, and no one is in love with me, and no one has a crush on me, so that’s usually a dead giveaway.

Notifications.

Another one is Twitter notifications. I couldn’t tell you how many times people have followed me on Twitter. Then they send a direct message. It usually goes something like this: ‘Someone is spreading nasty rumours about you on their blog,’ they provide a link to click on, and here we begin to see a bit of a pattern. Scams prey on common human failings or even human strengths, like greed, or fear, or vanity. They prey on the need to be loved, or your generousity, or the wish to be helpful. They try to play on your sympathy.

The scammers try to cover all the bases. Since I’ve never clicked on a DM link on Twitter from anyone I don’t know, (and they’re not that sophisticated to begin with,) there’s no way for me to say if it’s a virus, inappropriate photos, (a sick joke of some kind,) or perhaps in many cases just a landing page with some form of not-too-scrupulous pay-per-click application running.

Anyone you don’t know sending you photos or documents or links is an alarm signal.

Be Suspicious.

So the scammers will go on your Facebook profile page. They look through your friends list, find some of your friend’s names—say a real estate salesman. Then they pretend to be them. Here the giveaway is that the sender’s e-mail address will differ, as they can’t actually send anything if they haven’t hacked your friend’s account. That’s a whole different problem, even then, if the friend lives ten thousand miles away and you’ve never had personal contact with them, it is wise to be careful about clicking on anything, or replying to anything.

But mostly, they have to send it from somewhere else. These will often show just a nonsense jumble of letters and numbers. After a while, I learned to be suspicious of anything out of the ordinary or routine. Bad spelling and bad grammar, run-on sentences, subject matter, no previous contact, there are often a lot of subtle clues to consider.

So if someone you know on Facebook or other platform suddenly shows up in your inbox, (again with the docs, links or photos,) you should seriously ask yourself why they would be sending you things that have not been previously discussed, from a person who is certainly nice enough but you’ve never met and they live ten thousand miles away. You’ve never engaged in long chats with them, and you don’t even really know who they are. Someone like Wells Fargo is savvy enough about security (and their own reputation,) to put the message in the body of the e-mail, and any links will be the same as the official company links on their website. You can always Google it on a separate tab and see what it really is.

The most dangerous ones are the ones from someone in your hometown, as there is some psychological bond of trust there already.

You have to think about what you’re doing. Sometimes the best thing to do is to just turn off all notifications, and only use the ones like on Facebook, Twitter, etc. Clicking on links in internal messages, or in the chat box, has plenty of risks, and if you’re a writer, sooner or later you’re going to tick someone off for any number of reasons. The very fact that we have to be out there and visible can attract the attention of scammers and otherwise destructive or mischievous individuals.

Here are more tips on basic internet security from the Ontario Ministry of Consumer Affairs.


The Sleepwalking Time Traveler.


(Jacques-Louis David, 'Mars Desarme par Venus.)









Tim Norton woke with a start. Staring wildly around the room, nothing was familiar.

It was happening again. An unknown woman stirred beside him, mumbling in her sleep. A trickle of drool came out of her mouth. The pillow looked wet beside her face, and Tim was in a whole heap of trouble because he had a funny feeling this wasn’t nineteen-ninety-eight any more.

He eased out of bed, with his heart beating hard in his chest.

No clothes! Nowhere could he see anything that resembled his clothes, or the clothes of any other male.

A younger woman, sleeping on a couch at the other side of the room, sat up, yawned, looked at the shutters, and then she looked at Tim.

Tim stood there in a total funk as the servant screamed bloody murder, and while he couldn’t really blame her, considering he was a naked man in a private bed chamber, it didn’t seem fair
because it really wasn’t his fault.

***

“I would like to know how he did that!” Doctor Panjay Sumalamalon was understandably upset. “People don’t just disappear into thin air!”

Nurse May Dowlings huddled beside the doctor. Her head was hanging, but why should she feel guilty? She wasn’t the one who let him out.

“He was right here ten minutes ago.” She wasted no time seizing the moral high ground. “And that damned door was locked, as you yourself can testify.”

The doctor, on Nurse Dowlings insistence, had in fact checked the lock upon seeing the picture in the monitor—an empty bed, some disheveled sheets and no one in the adjoining bathroom. With their swiveling camera, snug behind its plastic bubble in the ceiling, there was no way for Tim to hide around the corner.

Reality mocked him, and he sure didn’t like it very much.

“There has to be some explanation. Check the corridor cameras and the security log.”

It sounded like a warning, or an accusation, and she wasn’t going to put up with that, not even from the great Panjay Sumalamalon.

“Good. We'll do that. And then you can sit down at your little desk and give me a written apology.”

***

“Guards! Seize him!” The husband shouted, red-faced and feeling at his side for a stiletto or a poniard or something.

“Oh, J-J-Jesus.” Tim stammered in dismay.

Two colorfully-garbed and rather beefy young men strode forward, and when Tim saw the tip of the spear coming down to face level he just naturally bolted.

There was nowhere to go. Except for the bed, the couch, a window, a door and a lot of tapestries and curtains and wall hangings, there wasn’t too much in there to hide behind. The maid was shrieking, the husband was hollering and cursing, and the guards were threatening and poking with their weapons. The second guard had a wavy-looking sword and seemed to have a pretty good idea of how to use it as he jabbed and swiped at Tim.

Tim tripped and went down, and the guard with the spear went right over him, falling heavily. There was a terrifying moment when he thought the second guard was going to chop his head off. He rolled away with alacrity, with a sudden shriek ringing in his ears.

The guards stood there, gazing in terror as the master of the house died horribly, staring up at them from a half-sideways position on the floor with the butt end of about a six foot long spear sticking out of his chest.

Tim grabbed the sword from the second guard’s limp hand and stepped in close.

“This is over right now, buster.” He drove the thing into the man’s guts just below the lower ribcage on his right side.

Gurgling and screeching, the man fell at Tim’s feet.

The other guard ran from the room.

"I have to stay alive until I get so tired…that I just fall asleep.” It was his only way out of this place. "Hopefully, I will have some kind of a crazy dream.”

Tim stepped in close and she tipped her head back for one final kiss.

“Thank you, thank you, oh, golden stranger.” She moaned as if in despair. ‘Whatever happens, it was worth it. And these guys were just pigs anyway.”

“Yeah, whatever.” Tim spun on one heel, and dove out the window.

Luckily for the impulsive Tim, they had a moat or something down there.

***

Three doctors, four security men, two lawyers, eight cops and eleven other staff members watched the recording in ultra slow-motion.

“Well. The man actually disappears on screen.” Stone was the night janitor.

He was a well-read college boy who could be pressed into service in an emergency.

“Interesting. I’d like to meet him if you ever get him back.”

Stone was leaning on his mop. About forty eyes turned and stared at him and he blushed.

“So, um, I’ll just get back to work then.” He slowly began to back and nudge his way out of the press.

“You have to admit, it’s a pretty darned good trick.” Sanjay sighed, rubbing his left hand around in small circles in the area of his mouth and chin. "And here we all thought poor Tim was crazy."

For the fiftieth time, they watched as Tim’s body just sort of faded from the bed, where he was peacefully sleeping by any standard of judgment. The bedclothes dropped and Tim wasn’t there anymore. He was just gone.

“This is not happening.” Constable Brewster was adamant, tired as he was at this hour of the night.

Everyone called him ‘Buff’ for some reason.

“Who wants to write this report?” Constable Willikens, a new officer, gave the same sort of initial impression as a side of beef hanging there on a hook, all big and hard and cold.

“I’ll do yours if you do mine.” Doctor Sumalamalon blurted it out in disbelief, and the group broke up in nervous laughter.

They were past the panic stage.

“Jesus, Christ.” Brewster was at a loss. “All we can really do, Doctor, is to take a report. I’m not even sure we can classify this as a ‘complaint.’ I guess you would call it an incident. We’ll do an incident report.”

“The tabloids will never believe this.” Panjay didn't like this at all. “They’ll think we’re putting them on. Honestly, all I can do is to document everything, and give it to you guys. This is going to drive my malpractice insurance guy buggy!”

They all made several copies of the file, wrote their own reports and notified the next of kin.

There was nothing more they could do for Tim.

***

Walking around a strange land at night, buck naked and soaking wet, with nothing but a sword wasn’t much fun, but it could have been worse. Tim killed the first person he found who looked about the right size and at least then he had a cloak, some sort of leg-wrappings and sandals.

“You shouldn’t have laughed, you bastard."

The body was out of sight, and there wasn’t much blood. It was mostly on the grass. The rain would soon wash it away. Tim threw some dirt from the road around on the more visible splashes and then got out of there.

Thinking it through carefully, he kept the sword, hanging it awkwardly inside of his stolen cloak and down his left leg. In a stroke of genius, he walked with a limp and hunched over. Painful as it might be, it was better than getting hacked up with swords and hatchets and things.

Tim cut straight into the woods. Almost anything was better than the two-lane cow-path that passed for a major highway in this part of the world, and in this era. Tim figured his survival and even comfort and convenience depended upon chucking all the old rules out the window, and for some strange reason, he had never felt better in his life.

“As for why all this is happening…frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn." Tim weaseled through a thick growth of hawthorns.

With enough of this stuff behind him, he would feel a lot better about evading any mounted pursuit.

***

Tim woke up feeling all soft and warm and cozy. He wiggled his toes in sheer bliss. What a wonderful feeling to wake up and feel safe.

Morning light streamed through flimsy curtains.

“No.” This was not his bedroom.

“Good morning.” Someone spoke and Tim’s heart almost shot out of his mouth.

He sat up in a heartbeat to regard a tall, spare figure dressed in a black suit, a white shirt and a bowstring tie. The man was seated at his bedside on what looked like an old wooden Shaker chair, all spindles and things.

“Good morning.” Tim confidently swung his legs out from under the covers, which looked like real linen and a quilted comforter with tiny white points, quills ticking out here and there.

“Please don’t kill me.”

Tim paused with his feet on the floor and his hands on the edge of the bed.

“All right.” Tim looked him over.

He waited.

“You were all covered in blood. You had some awful clothes on and you were sort of clutching this big old sword to your chest. I mean you no harm. You can have your things back…”

His voice trailed off as Tim nodded.

“I found you sleeping the sleep of the damned, and you wouldn’t wake up.” The dark-haired, blue-eyed man explained, or tried to explain as best he could.

He looked to be about forty-five years old.

“Thank you.” Tim was noticing that he was wearing clean pajamas, although he still felt grubby.

“You need a bath. My housekeeper, Missus Lee, will draw you one. My name is John.”

The stranger waited patiently as Tim thought it all out.

“Your things are right over there.” He beckoned at a side table near the window. “I suppose if you must go, you should maybe sneak out of town the back way, or even wait until nightfall. People would talk.”

“What do you want?”

Tim drew a long breath and let it out again. He sagged on the edge of the bed.

“I would love to hear your story.” John face lit up with a grin.

“What year is this?”

“I knew it!” John’s face was overcome with a look of pure awe.

The gentleman put his hands on his knees and dragged himself to his feet.

“Rheumatism." He went out into the hallway. “I’ll get you a drink.”

Tim nodded. Tim heard his footsteps receding and then the voice lifted in query.

“Missus Lee! Missus Lee!”

***

Missus Lee found clothes that fit Tim, although they were a little big. To his delight, John had an old pair of boots that fit perfectly and there was even an old Stetson for him to wear.

The two men sat on the porch, looking out over the street, wide and dusty.

“And you have no idea how this happens to you?” John was filling up notebooks at a prodigious rate, and plying Tim with questions about his adventures.

John was not so much interested in Tim’s time travelling, which he couldn't explain anyway, as he was interested in the details of the cultures he had visited.

“All I know is that I went to sleep one day and woke up in the middle of a big plain, with a cloud of dust on the horizon.” So much had happened to him in such a short time. “It was the Chaldeans, or the Hittites, or somebody.”

John shook his head in envy.

“You may find this hard to accept, but I would switch places with you in a heartbeat, if I could.” John sipped a mint julep.

“You’re welcome to it.” 

They came up with a plan. John slept for a few nights beside Tim’s bed on a cot, uncomfortable as it might be, with the two men hand-cuffed together. This seemed reasonable, as the sword and the clothing stayed with Tim when he ‘moved,’ as he put it.

But it was not to be.

***

Tim woke up in his own bed. It was really his bed. The handcuffs and John were gone. He lay there, afraid to move, afraid to think, afraid to do anything…but he had to pee. Tim’s heart leapt, for while it was surely temporary, it was also home.

Oh, God, this was his home.

The room was chilly, as he stiffly got up and lumbered to the bathroom, looking at all the familiar things, the stereo system, the big-screen TV, and the fish tank.

There was someone in the bathroom. The noise came again.

Tim stood in the hallway, and the bathroom door was closed but he could see a crack of bright yellow light along the bottom. His jaw dropped, as normally, if anything about Tim’s life was normal, normally he lived alone.

The door opened and the light went off, but he could see just fine.

“Ah, there you are, my darling.” It was a woman dressed like Cleopatra. “We’ve been looking all over.”

She clapped her hands and a whole bunch of weird flute music started up.

“Are you hungry, my love?”

“Yeah—yeah, I’m real hungry.”

Tim rolled his eyes around, taking it all in. He noted a strange air of unreality about the place.

There was no roof, no ceiling, nothing but blue sky above. Tim looked up at the sky, and the hair stood up on the back of his neck with a cold chill of indignation. It was an awful feeling.

There were times when he felt like some plaything of the Gods, and that they were all sitting around up there watching him and laughing at all of his misfortunes.

End

Here is my new science-fiction adventure novel, 'Horse Catcher,' available for $2.99 from Barnes & Noble.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

E-Book Marketing using Excerpts.









Books are easy to borrow.

Many of the great books I’ve read over the years were borrowed. My friend’s old man was in light cruisers and escort carriers during the war. Another buddy’s dad flew Lancaster bombers, and Spitfires, and taught courses at Pensacola in the early years of carrier aviation, when the Brits invented the angled flight deck, and two or three other things, actually. (Some of what his kid told me might be bullshit.)

What do you buy the aging veteran for Christmas, when he’s got enough ties, socks, underwear, and aftershave lotion to last eight lifetimes? A book. A war book, because you know how he loves that sort of thing. Over a lifetime of birthdays and Christmases, these old fellows end up with a lot of books. With my old man, it was anything to do with airplanes, or anything to do with WW II history. He loved that stuff, but then as a boy he lived through them headlines, right? He was an amateur historian, although his theories were pretty crackpot in some ways.

Both of my buddies had read most of those books, but when I spotted them I immediately went over and started looking at the titles. I ended up borrowing three and four books at a time. This was mostly because I could see them.

E-Book Marketing.

When marketing e-books, the only place people are going to see them is online. The chances of someone looking over another person’s shoulder on the subway and seeing the cover, title and author name are pretty slim. Most of us can’t afford to rent space on a billboard, and we have no measurement of its effectiveness anyway, not so far. On the other hand, paperbacks on coffee tables, bookshelves full of hard-covers in someone’s living room, or a sheaf of glossy magazines in a rack in the bathroom are fairly easy to spot.

Paperbacks at the drug store or in a rack in a department store are fairly easy to spot as well. It makes impulse buying possible.

Other than being in online bookstores, E-books rely on word of mouth to a far greater extent. They aren’t in brick and mortar bookstores. They’re not laying on benches at bus stops, either. So far, they can’t be donated to thrift shops. I have no idea if there is anyone with a ‘used e-book store’ out there, but it may come. What would the discount be based on? Cover condition? It’s getting a little dog-eared around the edges, right?

No one is going to stumble across one of our e-books in Wal-Mart in some desperate last-minute shopping bid for the perfect stocking-stuffer.

This is why so many independent authors feel they must promote or at least advertise their wares one way or another. The real problem is figuring out what works, and how much is just enough. It’s just as easy to shoot yourself in the crotch with a sling-shot, if you have a poorly thought-out campaign.

As we head into Christmas, I’m thinking of trying a campaign of excerpts. As long as I have a picture of some kind on it, I can post it to Pinterest, and a few other places too. It brings blog traffic, and gives anyone reading it an idea of the sort of material and writing they will find in the book.

Here’s a couple of excerpts from ‘Horse Catcher,’ available from Smashwords and many other fine retailers.

This is Chapter One, 'Dooley Wakes Up.'

This one's from a little deeper into the book. Note that I have a better marketing image now.

I’ve never gone at this systematically before. Those excerpts were posted, often while a WIP, (work in progress.) While it might not be the greatest marketing technique to show products that were only half done, the fact is that now I have the excerpts, and it’s easy enough to use them methodically, over the next six weeks or so, and then maybe try something else. This is the value of experimentation.

Now I that I have the excerpts, I can try something different with them.

Here’s a great song by the Tragically Hip. ‘Trickle Down.’

Insecurities.

There will always be insecurities in being independent, because we are relying on no one else for our pay-cheques or our validation. In the above photo, the reader can see how one of my short stories, ‘The Apparition of the Virgin’ ($0.99) looks in the Nook for Desktop application.

Totally off the record, it looks beautiful. Right?

Don’t read that and go thinking that I don’t like Clive Cussler, because I do.

Sometimes a parody is just a parody.

“When are you going to write a successful book?” When my thirteen year-old nephew asks that question, I think he means million-copy bestseller status.

He means being on the cover of Playperson Magazine and getting interviewed by Colbert.

(Phooey on you, Monsieur Colbert.)

Time to make a will.

It’s just the sort of terms that people think in. They don’t know any better. Theoretically I should make a will and leave all of my intellectual properties (sic) to my nephews. It’s hard to imagine them guys knowing what to do with 'The Company,' but if I don’t legally leave it to them there’s no chance at all for them to find out…right?

It’s probably not going to make whole hell of a lot of difference to me. I could always leave it as a cultural artifact to the Canadian people. I doubt if they’d know what to do with it either, which basically just leaves the government or some charity somewhere.

I’m just saying.

Spammers.

Every so often I'll read a snarky comment about spammers. If you have a traditional publishing deal, hopefully you got a $50,000 advance and your book is in all the stores. The rest of us have to learn how to promote our books one way or another.