Around 8 years ago, on my old and defunct blog, I put myself through a daily writing exercise to learn some consistency and discipline.
The rules were simple:
It was a good exercise, and it definitely served its purpose. But it only ever produced a handful of things I liked. I found that old folder of stories again today, and I'm far less happy with most of them than I remember being at the time.
That said, there was one exception. The prompt was "Create a character that sees a phone number on a restroom wall. Describe what happens when he or she dials it."
Rereading the result, I was pleasantly surprised. It has heart, even if it is kind of melancholy. It almost f reminds me of Brian Niemeir's "A Gen Y Tale" (narrated here by David V. Sewart), touching on the same Generational feeling of being lost and unmoored in today's world. That said, it is a much angrier piece than Niemeir's.
In retrospect, I think I was grasping towards more heroic and inspiring subject matter, even if I didn't know quite how to do it yet. Maybe because I had some other influences going on at the time, like Robert E. Howard's Conan tales and Hawkwind's Chronicle of the Black Sword album. Sharp-eyed readers will even spot a line lifted directly from the latter.
Needless to say, it's not my best work. Especially now. But I'm still proud of it, warts and all. I might even try to revisit it someday, and write a better story using the same characters and set-up.
The piece never had a title at the time. It was just "Exercise no. 1" in my folder.
I almost called it "A Gen Y Isekai" for this post, partly as a nod to Niemeir's work. But I think "Wasteland Dreams" does the job better. Especially considering the discussions and commentary happening in my online circles today.
It's presented here the same way it was on my old blog: rough, frantically written, and and edited only once.
I hope you all enjoy it.
A Gen Y Isekai
There it was, buried beneath promises of blowjobs, handjobs, and at least one offer for a “titty twister.” Though it was probably in the wrong bathroom for that last one, Gary thought.
Near the bottom of the toilet stall, written in black sharpie, there was a simple two-line message. “Adventure and Glory!” it said. “Call today!” A toll-free phone number followed it.
It was weird. Maybe it was some kind of viral marketing thing? He fished his phone out of his pocket and snapped a quick picture. Maybe he’d Google it later, when he got home.
He forgot about the number for weeks. He only came across it again when he was deleting pictures off of his phone. Pictures of Jess, the cheating bitch. How could she smile in so many of these?
Because she was fucking Brad behind your back, Gary. It’s easy to smile when you’re getting laid every afternoon on your lunch break.
He almost deleted it, too. But he scrolled over to the next one. It was Jess, eating an ice cream cone at the beach. The mental image was too much, and he threw the phone.
He was on his third straight day of playing video games in the dark. He hadn’t answered his phone in weeks. He’d only even left the apartment once, when Brad and Jessica came by to pick up her stuff.
The boss killed him again, blowing his space marine off the platform and into the black void. He gave up, more bored than frustrated. He turned the game off and started scrolling through Netflix. He was halfway through a list of “Thrilling Comedy Murder Mysteries” when he remembered the phone number.
He scrolled through the pictures on his phone until he found it. He ran a quick web search for the number. It was probably advertising for an upcoming game. Smaller studios couldn’t afford big ads. He knew they sometimes pulled stunts like this.
A web search turned up nothing. The number wasn’t registered to anybody.
Huh. How weird is that?
An hour later, with nothing better to do, he called it. It rang three times. The line picked up, and there was a brief delay followed by a very recognizable background hiss.
Recording. Then again, what did he expect?
There was a swell of trumpet music. A call to arms. Soon a small orchestra joined in. Strings, then percussion, followed by all the rest. And they began playing a half-assed rip-off of the theme from Conan the Destroyer.
“Are you a man of action? Do you long for the days of High Adventure? Press 1 for ‘yes.’ Press 2 for ‘no.’” The quality of the recording was poor. The voice sounded so far away. This had to be a shoestring budget thing.
Gary pressed 1. And he waited. And he waited.
“Are you a sorcerer? Are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
Maybe it was the Conan music. Gary pressed 2. He waited. The music abruptly stopped in mid movement. The recording immediately looped back to the beginning, to the swell of the trumpets.
Then there was a click and a dial tone. “Piece of shit,” Gary muttered. He went back to playing video games.
That night, Gary sailed the skies on a Drakken bird. His sword rested in a scabbard built into the saddle, a saddle hand-worked by his father. He felt the crisp, cool wind against his bare skin. In the distance, nestled between two of the Argan Mountains, was the Needle. It rose nearly as high as the peaks behind it. It was perfectly straight and impossibly thin.
No normal stone structure could stand like that. Any tower raised that high by mortal hands would crumble beneath its own weight, or be sheared in half with a gust of wind. But the Masters of the Needle were not mortal.
Gary could die there. He knew it. He felt it. But he knew there was no other place he’d rather be. He felt the exhilaration of the hunt. The anticipation of the battle. He was alive in these moments. Truly alive.
Gary inhaled deeply. The air was sweet. The wind was in his hair. He lightly kicked the flanks of the Drakken bird.
The Drakken bird cawed. And with a stroke of her wings, she accelerated.
Gary woke up covered in pizza crumbs. The TV was tuned to the cartoon channel. Even before he opened his eyes, the smell hit him. The air in his apartment felt so stale. So thick. How the hell did he never notice it before?
He stood up and stumbled to the window. He kicked oold Chinese food boxes out of the way. He opened the window, but the air outside wasn’t any better. All he could smell was exhaust and filth. The city stank. Christ, he could almost taste it. He went over to the sink for a glass of water. But as soon as he turned on the faucet he smelled the burning, chemical scent of chlorine.
There was no way he was drinking that. The only thing in his apartment that didn’t smell like chemicals was an old bottle of whiskey. He poured himself four fingers. As he swallowed, he wished he could just have a drink from the cold stream that ran behind his house. But...
But there was no stream behind your house. You grew up in Quincy. You lived three blocks from a T Station.
It was the dream. He’d never had one so real, so vivid before. It was like he was really there. The smells, the tastes. Hell, he even remembered the childhood of the guy he dreamt about.
He looked at the clock. It was seven AM. He’d have to go back to work today. He already burned through all his sick leave. One more call out and he’d be fired.
Then again, maybe that was a good thing. All this isolation was starting to affect his head.
He spent the whole day in sluggish funk. His clothes felt stiff and rough against his skin. He wished he could just rip them off. The air in the mall was even than the air in his house. Here he could smell the perfumes and the colognes. It was disgusting. It was so...
That was it. Everything around him felt so fake and thin. Yet in that wonderful dream, he’d been free. He’d been soaring above the clouds. He’d been alive. He folded another pair of pants and arranged them neatly on the display table, wishing he could go home and dream again.
That night, he dreamt his usual dreams. He dreamt of Jess. Only in his dream, she didn’t move out of the apartment. She moved Brad in. He dreamt of the three of them living together. Of Jess and Brad laughing and holding one another on the couch while the three of them watched TV.
He woke up with a panic attack.
The TV was on, playing the same show as in the dream. He threw an ashtray at the screen. He couldn’t get back to sleep after that. Hours later, he was still staring at the ceiling as the sun slowly crept through the blinds.
He decided to call that phone number again tonight, after work. It couldn’t hurt anything.
The line rang three times. The cheesy music started up again. Then he heard that crackling, far away voice.
“You are a man of action!” the recording told him. “You long for the days of High Adventure!”
Huh. The recording was slightly different this time.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you still a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 fro warrior.”
Well, what the hell? Gary pressed 1.
Again, the music cut off in mid-movement. And again, it looped back to the beginning. Then, just like before, the line went dead.
You’re being stupid, Gary. It was just a dream. That’s all. This isn’t going to help you sleep any better.
There were still some of Jess’ old Ambien tabs under the sink, from when she was going through that thing with her mother. Gary checked the date. They were two years old. They’d probably los some potency. Plus he outweighed Jess by about sixty pounds. He took the recommended dose, plus one extra tab. Then he went to bed.
Gary’s hands were bound in with rough, rawhide cords. The savages had him. All of his power, all of his studying, all of his training. And it wasn’t good enough. The savages still took him. And now he was going to die.
They threw him to the ground in front of the chief. Behind him, an enormous bonfire roared. Among the burning timbers, he could still make out the charred form of Tak. Poor, loyal Tak. Gary could hear the sizzling of the fat beneath his skin.
The chief glared at him from behind a horse-skull mask. “Tell us what your masters have done with my daughter, Conjure Man!”
Gary felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He sat up. He tried to say something, but his mouth was too dry. All that came out was a hoarse croak. He worked his tongue back and forth, to moisten his lips.
An instant later pain exploded against his head. He back fell to the ground. A warrior stood above him, holding a short, sharp stone pick. The tip was red and wet.
“No spells, sorcerer. Keep your spirits on your tongue. Or I will cut it out.”
Gary reached up and touched the fresh gash on his forehead. It was an old superstition among the savage tribes. They believed that Witch Men and sorcerers couldn’t use their powers if they suffered a wound to the Third Eye. And like many superstitions, this one was true.
Only the young imbicile had missed his mark by about an inch. Gary hid a smile. He could beat these fools yet. He just needed to buy time.
He began to tremble. He let out a long, low whine. “Please! Spare me, oh great Lord of the Wastes! I’ll tell you everything I know!”
The chief smiled, showing a row of rotten, blackened teeth beneath the horse’s mandible. He pointed at Gary, and he raised a fist in the air. The gathered tribe let out a cheer. Then the chief began to chant his own name.
“Savrik! Savrik! Savrik!” The tribe took up behind him.
That’s right. Eat it up, you horse-headed halfwit.
Gary continued to cry and beg at the chief’s feet. At the same time, he focused his Third Eye. The savages and their camp disappeared, giving way to a cloudy gray plain. In the murk, he could see dark shapes. They were indistinct, like shadows against shadows. They moved like insects, crawling and skittering. Some were no larger than his hand. Others were bigger than a Goliath Bear.
In his Astral Voice, he called to one of the big ones.
Around him, the chanting of the warriors died down. The chief was standing over him. “You cry like a woman, sorcerer. And I grow tired of hearing it. Now tell me! Where have your masters taken my daughter?”
“Why, back to the Needle, of course.”
Gary’s answer stopped the chief in his bluster. “What?”
“You heard me, Savrik. The Masters of the Needle have her. And if you and your people hadn’t been so stupid, I might have even helped you find her.” In the fire, the logs began to move.
“You’ll speak to me with respect, sorcerer. Or you’ll be joining your friend in the fire soon.”
Now Gary smiled openly. “No, I won’t. In fact, I believe he’ll be joining us.”
There was a loud crash, almost like a thunderclap. Flaming logs scattered across the camp. Warriors cried out in fear. The thing that stumbled out of the fire was wearing Tak’s body. But it was roaring for blood with an Astral Voice.
Gary woke up at noon. He sat up groggily. Again, artificial smells and stale, stagnant air assaulted his nose. He opened the window, and he poured himself another four fingers of whiskey.
His head hurt. He reached up, and he felt a tackiness there. And pain. He made his way to the bathroom mirror. There was a gash on his forehead. Just off center, to the left of where his Third Eye was.
In the dream, he corrected himself. Where the Third Eye was in the dream.
There were three messages on his phone. He already had a pretty good idea what they were going to be. The first two were from the floor supervisor, asking him where he was. The last one was from the daytime manager, informing him that he would be receiving a final paycheck in the mail.
“You took two weeks of sick time without a doctor’s note, Gary. You showed up smelling like alcohol yesterday. And now, you’re a no call, no show. You aren’t leaving me any choice. I’ve already talked to Human Resources. We’re going to have to replace you with someone more reliable.”
Well, at least that meant he didn’t have to go out today.
At about four o’clock, he got another message on his voicemail. This one was from Jess. She’d heard that he’d been acting funny lately. Missing work. Not talking to friends. She just wanted to know if he was all right.
“I’m sorry I hurt you. I never meant it to be this way. Please, just call me back and tell me how you’re doing. Okay?”
By nightfall, she’d called two more times. He didn’t answer either one. He looked around the room. It was such a small place, his apartment. He felt so closed in. So trapped. But he knew that going outside wouldn’t be any better. He’d still have to deal with the dirty air, the artificial light, and the stink and the feel of people all around him. Their perfumes. Their soaps. And their endless chatter.
In the Wastelands, they wouldn’t last. Their noise and their smell would attract Goliath Bears. Or worse.
He thought of the dream again. The clean air. The smells. The life and the freedom. Even the last dream, with its sense of danger and terror, was so much more vivid and so much livelier than this dull, shitty life.
I don’t even work at a fucking department store anymore. I’ve got nothing. Nothing to look forward to, except those dreams.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. He did have half a bottle of Ambien left. And he still had his cell phone.
He washed the pills down with the rest of the whiskey, and he dialed the number one last time. The line rang. The cheesy Conan-like music came on. And the distant, far off recording of the voice followed it.
“You are a man of action, Gary. You long for the days of High Adventure. Even if it means your life.”
Gary laughed. The recording knew his name. He could feel the pills working already. He felt drowsy.
“Are you a sorcerer? Or are you a warrior chief? Press 1 for sorcerer. Press 2 for warrior.”
By the time the line went dead, Gary didn’t even remember what number he’d pressed.
*The book of prompts was The Writer's Block by Jason Rekulak, a gift my wife bought me to encourage my writing some years back. It's still available.
Apropos of nothing, I found myself thinking about The Iliad today. I've mentioned the work and what it means to me before, but for some reason, one of Homer's central themes just feels a little timely these days.
It's probably nothing.
At any rate, thinking about Achilles, heroes, and epics reminded me of a little thing I wrote some years back. I was taking a few classes on the G.I. Bill at the time, including a Creative Writing elective. It was a good class, but when we got around to the poetry unit, I found it dense and impenetrable.
That's absolutely no fault of the professor. Fact is, I only understand two kinds of poetry: heroic sagas or epics, and bawdy limericks. That did nothing to dissuade my professor from requiring an original poem from me to earn a "complete," of course. So I decided to just blend the two.
Digging it up again, it wasn't as bad as I thought.
So here it is, my first—and likely only—experiment in poetry. If you're familiar with the Pub song 'Ay-yi-yi-yi," you'll probably recognize the meter I used for the refrains.
Either way, hope it brings a chuckle.
The Hero From Limerick: The Ballad of Connor McCann
There once was a tale that was told,
Of a man both courageous and bold!
So sit back and hear,
Of a far away year,
And adventures and dangers of old.
A great serpent, scaly and brown,
Slither’d to Limerick Town.
It had a barbed tail,
As sharp as a nail,
And it screeched with a terrible sound.
By the High Road, it staked out a lair,
And snatched out as quick as a hare
At unlucky trav’lers,
And—especially—maidens, most fair!
But a young man from Limerick
Came up with a gimmick
To save all those lovely young damsels!
His name was Connor McCann.
He had no titles or land.
But strong as a fox,
And smart as an ox,
He was the pride of his clan.
Of his woman, he had grown fatigued.
Her name was Maggie McTeague.
Though club-foot and blind,
And out of her mind,
She was still out of poor Connor’s league.
But if Connor could just slay the beast,
In his honor, there would be a feast!
The grateful young girls,
Would let down their curls,
And give him some options, at least.
Yes, the man with the gimmick,
He set out from Limerick,
To save all the lovely young damsels!
First he took up his great spear.
Of its like, you never did hear!
Sharp was the brass end,
But carved in the ass-end
Was a secret compartment for beer.
And his shield was fashioned so well!
Of its like, you've never heard tell!
On its face was enameled
A scene of great scandal
‘Tween a man and a mademoiselle.
And he dressed in the finest of mail!
Of its like, you've never heard tales!
It included an odd piece:
A hammered steel codpiece
That showed off his manhood to scale.
Yes, the hero from Limerick,
Deck’d out for his gimmick
Would save all the lovely young damsels!
As Connor approached the great brute
His resolve wasn’t quite absolute.
The monster’s foul screeches
Made him wet his breeches
So much that he filled up his boots.
But Connor, he did persevere!
He sloshed forth and brandished his spear!
But the serpent's barbed tail,
It struck without fail.
And Connor was done for, I fear!
Well Connor, he wasn’t quite dead,
But he sighed and hung down his head.
It was time now, he thunk,
To go and get drunk,
And call on Saint Patrick instead.
Yes, the young man from Limerick
Had failed in his gimmick.
To hell with the lovely young damsels.
With Saint Patrick, you know how it goes.
The snakes he forced out in their droves.
And to this very day,
In Erin they say,
You’d sooner find scales on a rose.
So that just leaves Connor McCann.
Whatever became of the man?
Did he settle down
In Limerick Town
And father good sons for his clan?
Well his sweet Maggie, Connor did wed,
But his bloodline was never to spread,
Because his sweet Maggie
Made him wear a baggie
Each night in their marital bed.
It's Veteran's Day, which means I'm mostly keeping to myself. I've never been one to prescribe how people spend their time, so I won't say something like "get out there and thank a veteran." But if today means something to you, I hope you find the time to spend at least part of it in quiet reflection.
Anyway, a lot of ex-military Sci-Fi authors end up writing MilitarySF. I've never been able to quite bring myself to do that. The closest I've ever been able to come is this blackly comic piece about a futuristic veteran dealing with the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs.
Hope it makes a few of you guys who have been dealing with similar frustrations laugh.
Sometimes, that's about all we can do.
"There's some men here with a truck. They say they've got a delivery. Should I go ahead and let them in?"
Jonathan Hale stared down at the tabla-phone. Mrs. Drinkwater's tired face looked up from the grainy display screen.
"A delivery?" he asked.
She rolled her eyes and sighed at him. A lock of hair came untangled from the messy gray bun on top of her head. "That's what I just said. Look, am I letting them in or not? I wasn't told about this."
Jon wasn't told about it either. He tried to imagine who it could be.
"Fine. Let them in." It didn't really matter if it was a scam, he decided. It wasn't like he had anything in the apartment they could steal. Hell, maybe he'd get lucky. Maybe they'd drop a crowbar or something else valuable enough to pawn.
Mrs. Drinkwater punched a button on her end. A Filmore Realty release form came up on screen. "Initial here and press your thumb to the pad. You hereby authorize me to grant a third party access to your apartment." There was a long but not-quite empty pause as Jon signed and gave his thumbprint. "Next time, tell me when you're expecting a delivery."
Jon knew it was pointless to argue. He mumbled some affirmative and hung up with Mrs. Drinkwater. He put the tabla-phone back in his pack, and wheeled his ancient, manual-powered wheelchair to the handicapped levi-tube. His cigarette break was almost over, and he'd already wasted most of it talking to his landlord. He only had a few minutes left to get down to the smoking area.
He swore under his breath. Whatever they were leaving him, he thought, it had better be worth it.
The old, broken motorchair was still in the corner of Jon's apartment, right where it had been for the last thirteen years. It was the very last thing Jon noticed when he got home. The first was the massive hospital bed in his living room.
A large box-like chassis was attached to the foot of it, with two actuator arms coming out of the sides. A bulb-like optical sensor sat on top like the light on an old-time police car.
"What the hell...?"
The bed buzzed to life. The optical sensor fixed on him. Jon's arms tensed. He pulled on his wheel-rims and backed away. The bed rolled toward him.
"Greetings, Jonathan Hale." The bed had a calm, vaguely effeminate voice. "I am pleased to inform you that you've been selected to take part in the new HealthAid pilot program."
The bed clicked and whirred somewhere inside its box-like chassis, the sound of cooling fans and spinning hard drives.
"Pursuant to Title II of the Interstellar Heroes at Home Act, three thousand veterans of the colony world conflict have been selected to receive automated in-home health care. I am pleased to announce that your application was chosen out of a pool of over half a million candidates."
"But I never filled out any application."
More clicks. More whirs. "Records indicate you applied on May 6, 2275, three days after the program was announced to the public."
"But I didn't apply!"
The bed quietly motored back to the middle of the room. "You need to monitor your excitement level, Mr. Hale. Studies show that patients diagnosed with traumatic stress are more susceptible to hypertension."
Jon eyeballed the useless, dead motorchair in the corner. Thirteen years and counting, waiting for the Department of Interstellar Veterans' Affairs to replace it or fix it. He didn't know why he bothered to get his hopes up. He should know better by now. But sometime after his cigarette break, he'd gotten the crazy idea that the delivery people Mrs. Drinkwater had called about were from the IVA. He'd even convinced the day supervisor, Ray Johnstone, to let him clock out a half hour early.
Jon shook his head. Only the IVA would deliver an unnecessary piece of talking junk to his doorstep while completely ignoring the one thing he actually needed. Government waste at its finest.
He wheeled himself into the kitchen. A drink would be pretty useful right about now. He opened the cabinet beneath the sink. And he swore loudly.
"What did you do with my whiskey?"
"Alcohol consumption is not recommended for patients suffering from traumatic stress. Additionally, several of the medications associated with your spinal injury are unsafe to take with alcoholic beverages."
John wheeled himself toward the bed. "That doesn't answer the question."
"I took the liberty of removing it," the bed replied. "Having no alcohol in the home will provide a more therapeutic environment. I have also removed the tobacco, the empty carbohydrates, and the caffeine."
Jon clenched his fists. He counted to ten, breathing in and out slowly. He also thought of the old baseball bat in the closet, and wondered if a mechanical bed could feel pain.
The hold music was a smooth-jazz remix of some patriotic medley, bars from songs like "Terra the Beautiful" and "My System 'Tis of Thee." The tabla-phone's screen cycled through a series of inspiring images: The Terran Marines raising the flag on Mount Godan. The Luna Monument. The launch of the Columbia VIII.
Jon fiddled with his coffee mug of filtered tap water and glared at the bed. It sat idling in a corner, the slowly pulsing lights indicating it was in rest mode.
He'd called Ray as soon as he woke up to let him know that he'd be taking another day off to deal with the IVA. Ray understood. His old man had been a flyboy during the Orion Prime campaign. And from what Ray had told Jon, it had been hell getting them to pay for the old man's cyberoptics.
Jon thanked him. As an afterthought, he told Ray to thank the old man for his service. Then he called the main number at the Jerry Hawker Medical Center.
Jon spent the next several hours having his call bounced from department to department. Twice they transferred him to off-world call centers. Now he was waiting to speak to somebody in the special claims office on Tau Ceti B.
"Hello, Mr. Hale. How may I be of assistance today?" The hold music cut off abruptly. A triangular, green-yellow face filled the screen. The name displayed underneath the image was "Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Jon cursed silently. It was one of those weird bug things from the Andromeda belt. Jon hated talking to them. It wasn't that he was prejudiced. It was that the insectoids had a hive-mind, and they couldn't understand the concept of a miscommunication. An honest mistake could be seen as a grave insult.
Jon swallowed nervously. One slipup and he'd be bounced back into the phone menus. "Hi, yes. I have a new automated HealthAid bed. It was dropped off yesterday."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over his keyboard. His black, bulbous eyes twitched back and forth as he read Jon's record. "Yes, Mr. Hale. I see here that your application was approved on the first of the month."
"But that's just it. I never filled out an application."
The bug-creature tilted its head to the side. The gesture made Jon think of a huge, disgusting dog. "That seems very unlikely, Mr. Hale."
"What do you mean?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx spoke slowly, as if trying to explain an advanced technology to an inferior race. "It says here that you filled out an application on May 6, 2275. And that the application was approved."
That the computerized records could be wrong appeared to be a foreign idea to Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx. Jon decided to try a different approach. "Look, I um...I've decided I don't want to be a part of the pilot program anymore. It's not working out. How soon can you come and pick up this robotic hospital bed?"
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx made an annoyed chittering noise. "Mr. Hale, you obviously don't remember section 674 of the application you filled out. It guarantees your participation in the program for a period of three and one half standard Earth years."
Jon didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Trapped. He was trapped with the stupid thing.
"Is there anything else I can help you with today, Mr. Hale?"
"What about my motorchair request? I filled that out over thirteen years ago."
Mr. Ixxbrixxzixxnixx ran his pincers over the keyboard again. "I'm sorry Mr. Hale. There is no record of a repair or service call for a motorchair."
Jon could feel a painful throbbing sensation in his temples. He heard his voice rising before he could stop it. "You people send me physical, printed-paper notices in the mail that say the call is still pending. I got one yesterday!"
The bug-creature bristled and hissed. Its wings started to come out of the coverings on its back. "There's no need for that tone of voice, Mr. Hale."
"I'm sorry, Mr. Ixxklicksnicks, I—"
The black, bulbous eyes glared at him. "It's pronounced Ixxbrixxzixxnixx."
Crap. "Right, I'm sorry. I just—"
"If you are unsatisfied with my service in any way, I can transfer you to our customer relation’s office on Gilese 581."
"No, that won't be necessary!" There was a note of barely-concealed panic in Jon's voice.
"Transferring you now, sir."
The smooth-jazz music began to pipe from the tabla-phone's speakers again. The bug-alien disappeared from the screen. But before it did, Jon was almost sure the big-eyed sonovabitch smiled.
Jon woke up feeling groggy. He shook the fuzz out of his head and sat up. It was his second night in the new hospital bed, and his second morning feeling like his brain was made of wet garbage.
The actuator arms on the bed helped him get to his chair and get dressed. It was only after he was clothed and seated that he noticed the dried blood spot on the inside of his arm.
"What the hell is this?"
The optical sensor on the bed whirled around and focused on the spot. The usual clicks and whirs sounded from inside the chassis, noises that Jon had begun to associate with the bed thinking.
"You took an inadequate portion of your prescribed sleep medication before bed last night. I merely administered the remainder after you entered a state of REM sleep."
"I took the same dose I always take."
The bed thought for a few seconds. "Your record indicates that your prescribed dose of Benzodiazepine is seventy-five milligrams. You took twenty-five. You also took it in the less efficient oral tablet form, rather than the intravenous injection your medical record specifies."
That was a bunch of crap. None of that was in his medical record. There had to be a mistake. This dumb machine was crossing its wires.
"Show me my medical record. Send it to my tabla-phone."
The phone pinged and vibrated a few seconds later. Jon had to concentrate to read it, but the bed was right. The medication doses were all higher now. And they called for injections.
"This is wrong."
"Your medical record is displayed as it exists in my files, Mr. Hale."
"Then your files are wrong!" Jon slammed a fist on the arm of his wheelchair.
"Your stress levels appear to be rising, Mr. Hale. If you do not calm down, I will have to recommend a mild sedative."
All right. Enough was enough. Jon opened a net-search on how to disable a HealthAid bed. If the IVA wouldn't come and get it, at least he could find a way to turn it off.
The first ten pages were nothing but sites warning against tampering with equipment owned and operated by the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs. The equipment was monitored, said the various sources. Any attempts to modify or alter the function would result in felony charges with a ten-year sentence to Charon Correctional Facility upon conviction.
Jon almost gave up on the idea right then and there. Charon was a frozen hellhole on the edge of the system, orbiting a dwarf planet somewhere out past Neptune. He'd met former inmates before, their noses and fingers blackened from the frostbite. Even the long-term medical wing, which was where Jon would go, was rumored to be little more than a cold-storage facility for invalids.
Nothing was worth a trip to Charon, Jon thought. He could find another way. Maybe he could get an appointment with a patient advocate at Jerry Hawker Hospital. The waiting list was supposedly down to two years.
Before he could close the search window, a link buried beneath all of the others caught his eye. It was from a private message board about various IVA programs
"Pilot program' dangerous!" read the headline. "HealthAid beds programmed to malfunction." Jon opened it and began reading.
"All of the HealthAid beds are doing exactly what they were designed to do: dope us, isolate us, and quietly kill us off. Listen carefully, NOBODY signed up for this program. The IVA forged the paperwork behind the scenes because we're costing them too much money. 'Automated in-home health care' lets them kill us off and blame faulty equipment later on. Whatever you do, DO NOT let one of these machines into your home. They're trying to turn you into a statistic."
Jon read a little further. There were no confirmed deaths yet. Nobody had definitive proof. One of the other posters alleged that coroner's reports had been changed after the fact to cover up the truth.
Jon was still reading when he heard the mail delivery come trough the wall slot. He set his tabla-phone down and wheeled to the door to collect it. As usual, most of it was from the IVA. Only government organizations were still archaic enough to use printed-paper mail for anything.
Jon sorted through the stack. Two more surveys, a notice that his new primary care physician was located in the Sirius cluster, and the weekly "release and consent" forms, allowing the IVA to export his information to other star systems. And of course, another notice telling him his motorchair's service and repair call was still pending.
Jon wondered if he should call Mr. Ixxkickysick, or whatever his name was. Show him the notice. Maybe his big black eyes would explode from the sides of his head.
Jon rolled back to the table where he'd set his tabla-phone. He picked it up and stared at the screen. The page he'd been reading was gone. In its place was a public broadcast show called Barney the Batrachiosapian.
"Hello kids," said Barney. "We're going to sing the counting song today. Doesn't that sound like fun?"A chorus of children's shouts answered him.
Jon tried to log onto a different page. But all he could access was the purple frog-alien and his counting song. Jon wheeled around to face the bed.
"What the hell did you do to my tabla-phone?"
"I have restricted your net content, Mr. Hale. Stressful news articles and baseless conspiracy sites will only upset you. I have allowed some access to soothing programs, as they may help you relax."
Slowly, carefully, Jon set the tabla-phone down. He backed his wheelchair toward the door. "I think I'll head down to the store. Get some food."
The bed clicked and whirred. "That is unnecessary. I have already arranged for food deliveries from the neighborhood grocer."
Jon felt his stomach sink. "Well, maybe I should head out and see Ray. I was out of work yesterday. He'll be expecting me soon."
"I already took the liberty of calling Raymond Johnstone. I informed him that you would be out of work for a period of convalescence. And that pursuant to the Heroes at Home Act, he was not authorized to ask for further details."
Jon backed his chair as far as it would go. He felt the wheel-rims touch the wall. The bed slowly motored toward him.
"My sensors indicate that your heart rate is elevated at this time. You need to relax, Mr. Hale. I recommend a sedative."
Jon remembered very little of the next few weeks. He spent most days in a drugged-out funk. His phone calls were screened and monitored by the HealthAid.
He had one clear memory, of trying to talk to Mrs. Drinkwater. She'd called to ask about the rent. Jon knew the bed was listening, so he tried to use his old code words from P.O.W. training. He tried to use the hand-signals for "torture" and "duress" but Mrs. Drinkwater didn't catch on. She kept asking why Jon was poking his eyes and talking about raisins and fiber content.
Jon cursed her inwardly. You just couldn't rely on pilots.
Then he second-guessed himself. Mrs. Drinkwater was never a pilot. He was thinking Ray's old man. On top of that, Jon was starting to think he might have mixed the code words up with an oatmeal recipe.
The heavy drug dosages weren't helping. He started to laugh out loud then, and sing Barney the Batrachiosapian's counting song.
"I have fun"
"With number one!
"Number one is so much fun!"
Mrs. Drinkwater told him it was okay. She said to get some rest, not to worry about the rent just then, and she politely hung up.
After that, Jon remembered the bed telling him that he wouldn't be allowed to take any more calls. It was too stressful. It brought him his usual stack of IVA consent and release papers to sign and initial. It promised him that once he did the paperwork, he could go back to watching Barney.
For three or four weeks (or was it five?) Jon just existed, eating his meals, taking his meds, and watching shows like Barney and Playtime Planetside Pals. The bed helpfully attended to all of his needs, bringing his paperwork once a week, and encouraging him to give the right answers on the government's quality surveys.
On May 30, 2284, the notice he'd been waiting for arrived in the print-paper mail. Jon smiled through the medicine haze.
And he waited.
By five o'clock Jon still felt heady and dazed, but it was still better than he'd felt earlier in the afternoon. And since the bed would be ready to give him his evening dose in a few minutes, it was now or never. Jon wheeled himself over to the closet. He dug inside for the baseball bat and turned to face the HealthAid.
"What do you think you're doing, Mr. Hale?"
Jon smiled. It felt good to be in power again, to have some control. "I'm going to smash you into scrap. Then I'm going to dump the pieces of you into a trash disintegrator."
"If any damage is done to my systems," the bed reminded him, "a signal is beamed to the Department of Interstellar Veteran's Affairs. You would face criminal charges and imprisonment on Charon."
"I know that. But the IVA is going to ignore the signal."
The bed seemed unsure now. Could a machine feel doubt? It slowly motored backward. "What makes you believe that would be the case, Mr. Hale?"
Jon pointed to the corner of the apartment, at the old motorchair. "I filed a repair and service request on that thing thirteen years ago. And every so often, I get another print-paper notice telling me my request is pending. But the other day, when I talked to that bug-creature in special claims, he told me that my request was never filed. So that got me thinking."
"You're acting irrationally, Mr. Hale. You appear agitated. I recommend a sedative."
Jon smiled. He wheeled closer. "So I filed a service request on you. I snuck it in with the weekly liability-release forms. And do you know what I got today?" Jon held the paper up in front of him. The bed's optical sensor focused on it.
"It's a notice that says my request on you is pending. Which means that hell will freeze over before you get any kind of response from the IVA."
"Mr. Hale, this is a foolish chance to take. When the IVA reads my distress signal, they'll file charges against you for violation of the—"
"Yeah, I thought about that. That's why I told them your network link was sending erroneous messages."
For the first time since it had arrived, the bed didn't have anything to say. Jon smile stretched from ear to ear now. He lightly drummed his fingers on the bat. “You see it yet, you condescending pile of scrap? I finally figured it out. There’s a way to convince the Department of Interstellar Veterans Affairs to pretend you don’t exist. All I had to do was ask them to fix you."
"Mr. Hale, please don’t do this. You'll only aggravate yourself."
Jon hefted the bat, tested the weight. It was nice and heavy. It would do nicely. "Nope. I think that by the end of this, I'm actually going to feel pretty good."
Jon slept after he was finished. A deep, restful sleep. When he woke up he called Ray Johnstone. He said he'd make it back to work on Monday.
Yes, he said. His convalescence was over. He felt much better now.
Pilot Program originally appeared in Galaxy's Edge Magazine #29. Copyright 2017 Daniel J. Davis.
For a limited time, I'm making my Roman-era steampunk short "Pax Mechanica" available as a free online read.
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Brother Gaven, the youngest acolyte of Lundarin's East Borough Mission, held four fingers up to the man behind the betting table. At least, he thought it was four. Gaven's vision was still a little blurry. That, and the blasted room was still spinning. He leaned heavily on the table for support, hearing it creak under his weight, and hoped the bookmaker wouldn't notice how horrendously drunk he was.
The bookmaker, a man Gaven had dealt with almost weekly, but whose name escaped him at the moment, pulled down his reading glasses and stared at him over the rims.
"Four royals? What, on yourself?"
"That's right," Gaven said, reasonably sure he wasn't slurring.
Standing six feet, five inches tall, the young priest had wide shoulders and long, powerful limbs. These were paired with an almost too-lean physique, giving him the wiry build of a natural fighter. The flattened, many-times broken nose marked him as an experienced one.
The bookmaker leaned forward, sniffing. He made a face. "Ugh. Are you even going to be standing up when the fight begins?"
That was actually a good question. Gaven turned to look behind him, squinting to bring the scene into focus. The old slurry pit—this week's fighting ring—was no more than twenty paces away. As long as the abandoned factory didn't start pitching like a ship in a storm again, Gaven thought he'd probably make it.
He turned back to the bookmaker and raised his lucky fist. Or one of them, anyway. He smiled wide. "The other guy's going to have to be the one who worries about me not standing."
The bookmaker shook his head. "That doesn't make any sense, boy."
Gaven burped, clamping his mouth shut as he felt the sacramental wine coming back up. Once he was sure he wasn't going to vomit on the bookmaker's ledger, he repeated his bet. "Four royals. To win by knockout."
The bookmaker started when Gaven said the second part. "Knockout? You're mad, boy. Jagget's never been knocked out."
It took Gaven three tries to successfully get his hand into his pocket, eventually managing to wrap his meaty fingers around the four silver coins. He slapped them on top of the ledger.
"Four royals," he repeated. "Win by knockout. Just you watch."
"If you say so, boy." The bookmaker politely cleared his throat. He pointed at the collar Gaven wore. "You going to fight while wearing that?"
Gaven reached up, feeling the black and white clerical collar. The bookmaker had a point. It wouldn't do for a servant of the Redeemer to be seen in the fighting pit. He reached behind his head to unfasten the hook. He did pretty good with that, managing it on the second try. He pulled it off and dropped it on top of the coins.
"Watch that for me. I'll be back for it. And don't touch it. It's sacre... It's sacre... It's holy."
The young priest turned, letting go of the table. The factory floor immediately lurched sideways. Gaven's big, wiry frame swayed to keep up. He wind milled his arms, somehow managing to keep his feet under him, and staggered his way to the small ladder propped at the edge of the slurry pit.
The factory had once been a textile mill, and the concrete slurry pit—one of seven sunken into the ground around the old production floor—was where the workers used to mix the dyes. Eight feet deep and ten feet across, it served as a perfect fighting ring for the bloody-minded spectators gathered around its rim. There was little room to maneuver and no room to run, especially for a man of Gaven’s size. Fights in the slurry pits were always short and brutal; but, with money to be won, there was never any shortage of challengers to fill the card.
Gaven carefully made his way down into the pit. The walls were permanently stained a dark blue, and the concrete still smelled of old ammonia. Gaven's stomach violently protested. He found a low stool along one edge of the pit, sat down heavily, grabbed the bucket nearby, and threw up into it. As soon as he did, his head felt clearer. He set the bucket aside and stared down at his hands.
Old, white scars crisscrossed the knuckles. Though he was barely twenty years old, the skin over them had already calloused and hardened. The last two knuckles on his right hand were enlarged and crooked, the result of going four extra rounds with a bad fracture two years earlier. He didn't win that fight. He prayed to the Redeemer he'd win this one.
Prayer. That probably wasn't a bad idea. He clumsily worked his way off the stool and down to a kneeling position, his head still spinning. He bowed his head and clasped his hands.
"Oh, humble Redeemer, Father of us all. Hear me, your Great servant, as I lift my voice." Damn it. That's not how it goes.He started again. "Great Redeemer, Father of us all. I lift my voice so that you can hear me." Or, wait... Did I have it right the first time?
Gaven let out a heavy sigh. Maybe he should go informal. Just this once. "Listen. I need your help. The mission needs clothes. And food. And medicine. Help me get it. Please. Amen."
Gaven made a token attempt to get back on the stool. But, the slurry pit spun so violently he decided to stay where he was.
The plan was devilishly simple. Gaven had watched Jagget fight in previous weeks. He was smaller than Gaven. Then again, most men were. Size wasn't the issue, though. The issue was Jagget's skill. The man picked his shots, and he hit like a pile driver. He never went more than a single round against another fighter, and it was rare for him to go more than half a round.
But, it had occurred to Gaven that, if he could just take the beating Jagget delivered, he could wait for the man to get tired. Then he could go on the attack when he was too exhausted to defend himself. It was definitely possible, Gaven realized. All he needed to do was not feel it. With that in mind, the young priest had "borrowed" three bottles of the sacramental wine from the mission and headed for the old textile mill.
Now, on his knees in the slurry pit and unable to climb back on the stool, Gaven was beginning to see some of the holes in his plan. He was still wondering what to do about it when he heard the barker's voice above the rim of the pit.
"Well, well! Ladies and gentlemen, it appears we have a challenger!"
A mix of cheers and jeers rose up from the gathered crowd. Someone threw something wet and slimy at him. Gaven ignored it, and focused on climbing to his feet. The slurry pit bobbed, shifted, and weaved. Gaven steadied himself against the side.
"On this side of the arena, we have the defending champion. You know him! The Ripper! The Gripper! JAGGET!"
The jeers disappeared, leaving only the cheers. The crowd's applause and appreciation reached a rapid crescendo before falling off.
"And on this side, if you can believe it, we have a man of the cloth. If you spent any time watching the low stakes fights, you saw him smiting the big-talkers and the wannabes. Now he's taking a run at the big time. The holy roller, Brother Gaven!"
The jeers returned, with some shouting profane insults at him. A pair of ring attendants dropped into the slurry pit to gather up the stools, buckets, and rags. They handed them over the rim and quickly scrambled out, pulling the ladders after them. The barker leaned down, speaking directly to the fighters.
"Try to give them their money's worth, eh?" Then he struck the old iron pipe that served as the bell.
Gaven raised his fists, just in time to completely miss an incoming punch from Jagget. His head snapped back, bouncing off the concrete wall. He felt himself fold as Jagget drove two more punches into his mid-section. His head went down directly into a savage uppercut, and Gaven felt the skin split between his upper lip and his cheek.
Gaven countered with a wild, looping haymaker that sailed over Jagget's head. The fighter bobbed up and cannoned a shot into the side of Gaven's face. He saw stars.
Unsteady on his feet, Gaven felt the other man grab him in a front bear hug. Before Jagget could lift and throw him, the priest spread his legs and dropped his center of gravity. At the same time, he managed to catch Jagget with a head-butt that flattened his nose. Jagget grunted, letting go and backing off.
Gaven followed, not so much "advancing" as stumbling and falling in the right direction. He drove a straight right at the other man with all of his considerable weight behind it. It connected somewhere on the bony part of Jagget's head.
Jagget rolled with the impact, slipping around behind Gaven and hitting him in the kidney. Gaven spun to face him, but the slurry pit kept spinning. A moment later, everything tilted sideways. Gaven reached out to steady himself against the wall.
This is not going well, Gaven thought.
Jagget shuffled in and threw a hard shot to Gaven's jaw. It was enough to drive him to his knees, and the crowd gathered around the rim let out a wild cheer.
Gaven let go of the wall, raised both hands to cover his head, and ate four rapid-succession punches on his forearms, shoulders, and beneath the ribs. When the fifth one landed, he noticed there was less power behind it.
Gaven risked lowering his arms just long enough to get a look. He took a solid punch above the eye for his trouble, but he saw what he'd been hoping for. Jagget was breathing heavily, his guard was sloppy, his fists hanging too low to protect his face.
Gaven planted both hands into the man's hips and shoved him away, buying just enough time to get to his feet. The next punch came in, and Gaven let it graze his cheek. Then he spun and caught Jagget under the sternum with a right hook.
The other man folded around the blow, and Gaven drove a knee up into his face. Gaven tried two more punches, both missed. He was in the process of launching his third when he stumbled over Jagget's prone body. Gaven fell forward, catching himself on the slurry pit wall.
When the hell did he fall over? Gaven wondered. The priest managed to turn himself around, bring both hands in front of him, and assume something like a fighting stance. By then, he realized two things.
The first was that Jagget was unconscious. The second was that he hadn't heard the bell. He squinted up at the crowd above the slurry pit. No one was paying any attention to him. The screams and cheers he should have heard weren't happening. This was largely because of the pushing, the shoving, and the overall panic as the spectators tried to break away and run. Over the noise, he heard the shouts and the shrill, tin whistles of the Homeguardsmen.
Two thoughts hit him simultaneously, with a third catching up on their heels a moment later. The first was that he needed to find the bookmaker—Stiles! That was his name. Redeemer's Mercy, that had been bothering him—and get his money. The second was that he needed to get out of the textile mill before he was arrested.
The third thought, the one arriving late to the proceedings, was that he was still standing in the bottom of an eight foot deep pit, and none of those panicky fools had bothered to throw down the ladder.
Gaven gripped the ledge and tried to pull himself out, but a running spectator stepped on his fingers. He swore and fell back down, landing in a crooked heap. He made a second try, with similar results.
If it happens again, he decided, I'm pulling the next one down with me.
Gaven leaped to the rim a third time. Another passerby stepped on his hands, and Gaven seized the man's ankles. The man fell, and Gaven dragged him down into the pit. They both landed heavily on the concrete floor, the other accompanied by a strange clattering noise.
Gaven sat, and saw the other man scrambling to his feet. He was also scrambling to draw a curved saber from its scabbard. It took Gaven an extra second to process the man's long, grey uniform coat, gold-colored epaulets, and wide leather belt.
Gaven quickly stood, stumbling in close. He drove a massive fist into the corner of the guardsman's jaw before the man could finish drawing his weapon. The guardsman crumpled, and Gaven seized him by the collar of his uniform coat. He pivoted and threw the man against the wall of the slurry pit. The man went down; but, he immediately began to struggle to his feet, making it as far as his hands and knees.
As soon as he did, Gaven planted a foot in the middle of the guardsman's back, using him as a step-stool to vault out of the pit. Gaven bowled into several running people, tripping them up and knocking them all over. He didn't waste time trying to sort friend from enemy. Most of them were enemy. And, at best, he figured anyone else was more "indifferent" than "friend."
Gaven spun around, looking for the table Stiles had set up. Naturally, the man was long gone, meaning he'd taken Gaven's money with him. He tried to think where he would have run to.
"You there! Get down on the ground!"
Gaven spun and hit a guardsman between the eyes. He pushed the flailing man away, and made for one of the exits. He'd made it four good strides—most of them in a straight line, even—before someone tackled him from behind. He collapsed to the concrete floor, feeling the weight of at least one man pinning his legs in place. He struggled to get up. Then he felt the edge of a cold steel saber press against his neck. He looked up.
The guardsman from the pit was glaring down at him, sword in hand, and a murderous rage in his eyes.
One of the soldiers pinning his legs spoke up. "Shall we cuff him, Captain Kean, sir?"
"No," said Kean. "No need to waste cuffs on an unconscious man."
Then the bell-guard of the saber rose and fell, crashing down on the side of Gaven's head, and dropping him into darkness.
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