"Some day, there will be a legend like this. Some day from steamy Venus or arid Mars, the shaking, awe-struck words will come whispering back to us, building the picture of a glory so great that our throats will choke with pride—the pride in the men of Terra!"
That's the introduction Leigh Brackett wrote for Keith Bennett's "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears," a short she personally selected for inclusion in The Best of Planet Stories #1. The latter was a reprint paperback anthology she edited in 1975 for Random House, paying tribute to the all-stars of the magazine that earned her the nickname, "The Queen of Space Opera." Under Brackett's editorial eye, Bennett's tale joined stories by such Golden Age heavy hitters as Poul Anderson, Frederick Brown and a young Ray Bradbury, not to mention Brackett herself.
I'd first heard of Bennett's story thanks to a glowing review from Morgan Holmes over at the Castalia House blog, when he did a write up on the Planet Stories anthology. So glowing, in fact, that I shelled out $25 for a used copy just so I could read it myself.
As usual, Morgan didn't steer me wrong.
Folks, this novella is one of the very best MilSF tales ever written, and thanks to the fine folks over at Project Gutenberg, it's finally available in a free e-book edition. If you're even a casual fan of the genre, you owe it to yourselves to experience this wonderful, mostly forgotten classic.
I'm not the only one who thinks highly of this story. No less an authority than David Drake has expressed his admiration for this obscure tale, as outlined in this brilliant essay at Tor.com. Fair warning, Drake's essay does have a few spoilers. I'd recommend reading the story first, both so you can experience it "cold," and so you'll have a greater appreciation for Drake's insights. And make no mistake, Drake's observations about Bennett and what he successfully manages to convey in his classic short are well worth a read. Among other things, Drake makes some razor sharp points about the gallows humor of the combat soldier.
As for the story itself, it's an amazingly simple one, about a platoon of marooned Rocketeers who must fight their way back to a friendly base through hostile territory on a savage Venus. It's basically an SF-nal take on Xenophon's Anabasis, right down to the main action being relayed through the eyes of a junior officer.
For that reason, fans of Nick Cole and Jason Anspach's Legionnaire--the first book in the wonderful Galaxy's Edge series—will arguably find the most to enjoy here. It's a Golden Age SF take on the same themes they explored, with surprisingly little ground lost in the 67 years between each story's publication. "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" is the olive drab fatigues and steel pot to Legionnaire's Marpat and Kevlar. Sure, there's some differences in terminology and tech. But it's still recognizably a grunt's eye view of war in the future, told by someone who knows what that hell looks like right now.
And like Legionnaire, it isn't sugar-coated.
You can read and download "The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears" from project Gutenberg.
It's not every day that I get a cold call from a publisher asking me to review an upcoming collection. It's even rarer that said collection contains work from several of my favorite writers.
Folks, I can't tell you just how fast I jumped at the chance to be among the first to lay eyes on The Penultimate Men, scheduled to be published the first week in July by Pilum Press.
Longtime readers of the blog will know I'm a fan of post-apocalyptic stories. But truth be told, with lockdowns, global pandemics, riots, and other such pleasant subjects saturating the daily news cycle for the last several months, I haven't been turning to the genre as much.
It's not that I've lost my taste for it. Not exactly.
What I've lost my taste for is the way most authors—and filmmakers—present it. The apocalyptic genre is one that easily lends itself to nihilism and misery. Think back to some of the most foundational works of the genre, and you'll see I'm right: Max Rockatansky being double crossed and used as bait, after finally agreeing to help the survivors in The Road Warrior. Charlton Heston's helpless, maddened scream on the beach at the end of Planet of the Apes. The trigger-happy posse executing Duane Jones at the end of Night of the Living Dead.
Sorry, but I've been getting plenty of doom and gloom on the news lately. I definitely don't want any more of it in my entertainment.
But folks, that nihilism and misery is not intrinsic to the genre. As proof, you need look no further than the stories contained in The Penultimate Men. If a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction could ever be called a breath of fresh air, this is surely it.
Authors Jon Mollison, Neal Durando, and Schuyler Hernstrom give the reader tales of heroism, brotherhood, and community. These are hopeful stories, full of wonder, awe, and struggle. Yes, the apocalyptic world presented here is dark. But the light of humanity burns as brightly as ever against that darkness. So what if those humans are sporting a few extra arms or eyes?
The collection opens with a thoughtful introduction by Misha Burnett, in which he discusses genre, tropes, and the loosely-shared universe concept behind the collection: to use the setting of a post-apocalyptic RPG as a starting point (Gamma World, by inference), and for each of the authors imagine a sort of "retro-apocalyptic" future, expanding on it with their own unique, fresh takes.
You heard that right, folks. What we have here is basically an unauthorized Gamma World anthology, written by some of the strongest indie voices working in the #PulpRev.
Jon Mollison offers up two stories, and the range he shows between them illustrates why he's quickly becoming my favorite writer of the apocalypse. The first, "Fire and Folly," is a short, simple coming of age tale a that packs a deceptively powerful emotional punch in its final lines.
The second, "Wind on the Water," is much more action oriented. Opening with an unexpected sighting of strange sails on the horizon and a call of alarm, the story follows mutant hero Wind and the rest of the odd inhabitants of his lakeside village as they try to discern if the strange fleet is attacking, or fleeing from some even greater threat. What follows is a tale of a desperate stand against impossible odds, featuring everyday protagonists—or as close as you're likely to find in this book—wretched monsters, and high stakes. This is the stuff pure adventure fiction is made of. And quite frankly, Mollison's short came closer to capturing the peculiar magic of the late David Gemmell's work than just about anything I've read since the Big Man's passing.
Neal Durando is a writer whose work I was entirely unfamiliar with prior to reading this collection, so his "Root Hog or Die" was my first exposure to his work. This beautifully written short brings the reader into the mind of the mutant in a way that few stories ever do. Its opening lines are delightfully, deliberately off-balancing. The characters, particularly the two-headed narrator Walbur/Wilbar, don't "think" entirely human, and Durando does an excellent job putting us there. But the tribe leader, Gordo, clearly does think in somewhat human terms. He suspects there's more to life than rooting for scraps and hunting, and wants to lead the tribe to the strange lights on the horizon. Definitely a story that will reward multiple reads.
"The Judgement of Daganha" by Schuyler Hernstrom is a sequel to his acclaimed novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City." In that story, Hernstrom used his barbarian and monkey duo to take on one of the sacred cows of science fiction, to wide critical praise. This time around, Hernstrom uses the pair to pay tribute to classic Sword & Sandal films of the 1960's, like Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. Tightly plotted, with plenty of intrigue, action, and humor, "The Judgement of Daganha" manages the difficult task of improving on its predecessor, already an acknowledged classic among #PulpRev fans. Featuring scorching deserts, scheming cults, and giant scorpions, it's like the best Ray Harryhausen film you never saw, the one that only ever existed in your wildest imagination.
Take my word for it. If you're a Hernstrom fan, you need to buy The Penultimate Men for this story alone.
Rounding the book out are two essays by Jeffro Johnson, who brings the same level of analysis and lucid commentary that earned him fame for his landmark book, Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons. "Starship" is a retrospective look at the game Metamorphasis Alpha, and how it relates to the mega-dungeon and Old School play. The other, "Symbiot," is a look at the literary (and film) inspirations for Gamma World. This essay serves as a sort of coda to Appendix N, and if you found yourself wishing you could get just one more taste of Jeffro's gaming/fiction commentary, you'll at least find it here, as he tackles Gamma World's unofficial "Appendix G."
The final verdict?
A new Mortu and Kyrus novella would be reason enough to buy this collection. The fact that the other characters you'll meet here are more than worthy of sharing their company is just an unexpected and added bonus. Once you meet them, I can promise you'll never forget Spearshaker, Ironmane, Wind, Gordo, or Wilbar/Walbur. Jon Mollison, Sky Hernstrom, and Neal Durando have given us heroes for the end times. What's more, they're heroes worth rooting for, with virtues we'd recognize in ourselves. Men who fight for family, home, and one another, rather than the usual parade of nihilistic survivors, selfish loners, and emotionally broken scavengers.
This is the apocalypse we deserve, genre fans. And it's been too long in coming.
The Penultimate Men will be available to purchase on Lulu.com. You can get it here.
Say one thing for Alexandru Constantin: you can't accuse him of being a man who complains without taking action.
Case in point: when he felt there weren't enough conservative voices in the critical sphere--an opinion he is far from alone in sharing, by the way—he decided to organize the Short Story Book Club. His stated goal is two-fold: create a body of conservative, countercultural criticism, and draw more attention to indie writers overlooked by mainstream media outlets.
I believe both of these ideals are 100% worthwhile, so I'm throwing my hat into the ring to help out.
The fact that the first story Constantin selected for this project is Schuyler Hernstrom's awesome novella, "Mortu and Kyrus in the White City?"
Man, that's just gravy.
I first reviewed Hernstrom's story two years ago, when he released it as a standalone e-book on Amazon. You can find that spoiler-filled review here, and it still sums up my overall feelings on this story: It's a balls-to-the-wall awesome piece of science fantasy, the likes of which no one outside the #PulpRev community is writing anymore. It's also a brutally sincere and final rebuttal of Ursula K. Le Guin's Hugo-award winning parable, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."
I'm not going to rehash my old review here. Rather, I'm going to expand on it with a couple of details I noticed during last night's reread of both Le Guin's "Omelas," and of Hernstrom's vastly superior "Mortu and Kyrus." It's also probably going to be just as spoiler-filled as my first review, so be forewarned.
That said, a brief aside before continuing with the analysis:
In terms of pure entertainment, I can't recommend Hernstrom's story enough. And if all you're craving is a dose of pure, adrenaline-filled awesomeness with alien ruins, axe-wielding barbarians, motorcycles, and talking monkeys, then stop reading this review NOW. Buy Hernstrom's new collection, The Eye of Sounnu from DMR Books, which is where you can read this slice of pure heavy-metal havoc.
I promise, you won't be disappointed.
Reader, time has not been kind to my opinion of Le Guin's piece. I've never been much of a fan, mostly because the moral premise it presents is shoddy at best, but certain passages that I overlooked on previous readings jumped out at me last night.
In a nutshell, Le Guin's parable envisions a "perfect society," a perfectly happy city called Omelas, where that happiness is somehow maintained solely via the horrible abuse and neglect of a single child locked in a basement. The parable then talks about the "ones who walk away" upon learning of this suffering. They leave the city, never to return, and this is presented as "remarkable."
In previous readings, I guess I focused mostly on the "stinger" of the horribly abused kid sitting in his or her own filth, because I didn't really remember much of Le Guin's description of her vision of what Omelas' "perfect" society must look like—she repeatedly reminds the reader that they can picture Omelas however they like, as the details don't matter, just as long as the reader believes what he or she pictures.
Anyway, this short excerpt is rather telling, but the emphasis at the end is mine:
But even granted trains, I fear that Omelas so far strikes some of you as goody-goody. Smiles, bells, parades, and horses, bleh. If so, please add an orgy. If an orgy would help, don’t hesitate. Let us not, however, have temples from which issue beautiful nude priests and priestesses already half in ecstasy and ready to copulate with any man or woman, lover or stranger, who desires union with the deep godhead of the blood, although that was my first idea. But really it would be better not to have any temples in Omelas—at least, not manned temples. Religion yes, clergy no. Surely the beautiful nudes can just wander about, offering themselves like divine souffles to the hunger of the needy and the rapture of the flesh. Let them join the processions. Let tambourines be struck above the copulations, and the glory of desire be proclaimed upon the gongs, and (a not unimportant point) let the offspring of these delightful rituals be beloved and looked after by all. One thing I know there is none of in Omelas is guilt. But what else should there be? I thought at first there were not drugs, but that is puritanical. For those who like it, the faint insistent sweetness of drooz may perfume the ways of the city, drooz which first brings a great lightness and brilliance to the mind and limbs, and then after some hours a dreamy languor, and wonderful visions at last of the very arcana and inmost secrets of the Universe, as well as exciting the pleasure of sex beyond belief; and it is not habit-forming. For more modest tastes I think there ought to be beer. What else, what else belongs in the joyous city? The sense of victory, surely, the celebration of courage. But as we did without clergy, let us do without soldiers. The joy built upon successful slaughter is not the right kind of joy; it will not do; it is fearful and it is trivial.
Apparently, utopia is a place of guilt-free orgies in the streets, cheap drugs, and no soldiers. Not to mention no organized religion or temples. In other words, the perfect society—or at least the outward veneer of one—is a hippie Utopia.
Color me shocked.
At any rate, what's especially fascinating to me is that last part in Le Guin's excerpt, the part about no soldiers.
To casually dismiss "the sense of victory and the celebration of courage" felt by soldiers as "the joy built upon successful slaughter" is—at best—a remarkably narrow-minded view of what fighting men actually do, and why they do it. Soldiers fight for many reasons, not least of which is to preserve life from hideous vultures like the ones in Omelas.
Incidentally, the word she's looking for to describe that odd, swelling-in-the-chest feeling about victory and courage? It's "honor."
And no, I won't presume the unnamed narrator of Le Guin's piece is acting as a mouthpiece for her personal beliefs. However, I will say that it's no wonder her narrator—who only sees a soldier's honor as a celebration of killing for killing's sake—can't imagine of any response to evil other than meek compliance or running away.
A coward's worldview can only conceive of coward's solutions, after all, and Le Guin wrote a damnably convincing one.
Compare this to Schuyler Hernstrom's characters, when they encounter a more fleshed out version of Omelas in his White City.
When they learn this near-perfect utopia is maintained through stealing the life-force of orphaned children, Christian monk Kyrus wants to go get reinforcements from the nearby city of Zantyum. He wants to raise an expedition to bring the evil denizens of the White City to justice. Barbarian Mortu, however, refuses to wait that long. His response is destined to become one of the classic lines in Sword & Sorcery fiction:
"You may talk of cities and justice all you wish. Tonight, the pagan wins. My anger will be sated and these wicked people brought to ruin."
He then stalks out into the night to deliver bloody justice on the end of a blade.
Fortunately for lovers of action and adventure, Hernstrom's White City isn't quite as peaceful or devoid of soldiers as Le Guin's vision of Omelas. There's enough violence on display at the climax to be satisfying without being the least bit gratuitous, especially Mortu's final duel with rival Tomas.
Their exchange during the climactic fight is another one that escaped me last reading, among all the other great lines Hernstrom delivers in this tale. Again, the emphasis is mine:
...Mortu smiled down at him and spoke. "The souls of the children cry out for vengeance."
That exchange might as well be a thesis statement for this tale, and for why I love these two characters so much. In Mortu and Kyrus, Hernstrom gave us a pair of heroes who couldn't just walk away from Omelas. He gave us heroes who not only had to do something, but who had both the courage and strength to tear the whole rotten thing down to its foundation.
Of course, that's a solution requiring a less cowardly worldview than the one presented in Le Guin's story. For one thing, it requires such "fearful" and "trivial" things as honor, a subject about which her narrator apparently knows nothing.
Fortunately, the same can't be said for Mortu and Kyrus. Nor could it be said, one would suppose, for Schuyler Hernstrom.
Two days ago, the news broke that sci-fi legend Mike Resnick passed away.
I had a brief, passing acquaintance with him. Back in 2015, I was a quarterly winner in the Writers of the Future Contest, which Resnick helped judge. As part of the prize package, winners were flown out to California for a weeklong writing workshop, with the judges as the instructors.
I honestly can't say I remember much from Mike's lecture. I still have the notes I took somewhere around here, but they're a jumbled mess. More than with any of the other instructors, I found myself trying to copy down everything Mike said verbatim. But each time I did, I'd have to abandon it halfway through, because Mike would be in the middle of spouting off something else I wanted to urgently copy down word-for-word. At last I just gave up and listened, hoping I could absorb and remember as much as possible.
Mike spent each night down at the hotel bar, spouting off even more of his hard-won wisdom among us newbie writers. It's there that I got my most lasting impressions of the man. Again, I can't say I really knew Mike, but from what I saw of him in that short week, he seemed to be a decent guy. One who was genuinely eager to help up and coming young writers.
It was during one of those "Bar Con" nights that Mike dropped a bit of wisdom that I'll always remember him for. He gave the most perfect definition of Science Fiction that I've ever heard.
"Science Fiction is the literature of warning: This BAD THING will happen IF..."
Reader, all of the storytelling possibilities in the world are encapsulated in that sentence. Every time I've sat down to write a sci-fi story since then, that phrase has been in the back of my mind.
Mike had one other personal impact on me, one that originated from the same night at the bar.
We were discussing the movie Avatar, which Mike said he hated. He said he didn't make it more than ten minutes into the film. I thought he was going to talk about the acting, the effects, or the cliches, but he took me off guard when he gave his reason.
He said it was the fact that the main character—a disabled veteran—rolled around in a non-motorized wheelchair at the beginning of the movie.
"They expect me to believe humans have mastered interstellar travel, but they don't have a motorized wheelchair? We have motorized wheelchairs at this hotel right now!"
Me being a young smart-ass, I said there was a perfectly logical reason for that in-universe. "He's obviously dealing with the department of Interstellar Veteran's Affairs."
Mike laughed. And I knew, right then, that I had something.
I realized that I had just made one of the most famous humorists in the entire sci-fi field laugh. And I also realized that a few hours earlier, he had invited the entire cohort of winners to submit stories to his magazine, Galaxy's Edge.
I realized that if I could build an entire story around this, I might just sell it to him.
Here's the thing about imposter syndrome, folks. Even if you do something right—say, winning an international writing contest—you might still feel like it's just a fluke. A one-off. You might feel like the only fraud in a room full of talented artists.
That's what I felt like in the back of my mind during Writers of the Future. It wasn't rational, and the instructors—including Mike—told us time and again we all deserved to be there. But that inner critic never listens to praise.
When I went home, I wrote that story. I sent it to Mike. And he bought it immediately.
Mike Resnick sat on a panel of judges, and selected my first story for publication. That validation made me believe I could write.
A few weeks later, Mike bought my second story. That made me believe I could do it again.
The story itself didn't see publication for a while. But I kept plugging on after that acceptance, knowing damned well that I had the chops. Thanks for that, Mike.
RIP, Mr. Resnick. You will be missed.
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.
I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.