Short Stories

These are all rough drafts.

Some are here just because they needed a place to rest after fighting their way out of my brain.

Others, if they can convince me of their worthiness, might be destined for publication efforts somewhere. In particular, I'm working on a cycle of horror-fantasy tales called The Secret Places, and I expect I'll be posting these (anywhere from 9 to 27 in total!) here as I complete them.

As such, they can expect to be tweaked and revised as I see fit. I'm not explicitly soliciting criticism, but if you'd care to leave some comments, I might consider reading them.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Camera Adds Ten Pounds

Mal awoke from disquieting dreams, refreshed but not quite ready to face yet another mildly paranoiac day.

Although his life was essentially perfect in every regard, he had always felt the constant, nagging suspicion that he was being watched.  This suspicion often seeped into his dreams, wherein he tended to find himself lacking control over his life and at the mercy of unseen handlers directing his every move through unconscious means.  The light of day usually put the paranoia at bay while he went about his morning routine, but in his quieter moments it would come creeping quietly back, and he would feel compelled to engage in another burst of activity to occupy his mind.  What troubled him the most during these moments was the unaccountable belief that his mind was being read, or at the very least that what he saw was being observed and recorded, as if someone else had unlimited access to his field of vision.

As usual, he didn't wake up hungry.  As usual, he had only to pat his hair into place to restore order to his appearance (although his grooming ritual, performed after morning exercises, would involve obsessively combing until not a single hair dared step out of line).  As usual, while he got dressed for his workout, he reflected on his current circumstances and the radical change they had imposed on his life over the course of a single summer.

Life here was darn-near idyllic.  He was into his fourth month of indentured servitude at his uncle's ranch, and there was almost nothing to complain about.  He had his own guest house, access to all the amenities and facilities, exposure to the great outdoors, and two days off a week.  Having led a typically-suburban existence through his high school graduation, he was finding that country living agreed with him in full, although he was prone, at times, to wishing more of it was air-conditioned.  On his time off, he could drive his beat-up Mustang into one of the nearby small towns, drink ice-cold sodas, ogle the country girls, and try to muster the courage to engage in conversation.  (He suspected he would never quite fit in until he could master a rural drawl and trade in the Mustang for a pickup truck, and this latter was a step to which he was not yet willing to commit.)  Or he could catch grasshoppers, wander down to one of the stock ponds and go catch-and-release fishing for bluegills and black bass.

Were it not for the encroachments of the Big City on this central Texas ranchland region, he would have no complaints other than the heat.  But the Big City was now crowding the horizon, polluting the night sky with orangey-yellow light, polluting the daytime sky with a layer of brown smog.  The Big City was pulling phenomenal quantities of water out of the ground, depleting the Edwards and Trinity aquifers at an alarming rate.  The Big City was outcompeting ranchers and farmers for metal, petrochemical and plastic resources.  The Big City's tech sector--formerly the San Antonio / Austin Greater Metropolitan Area--was, in the wake of the economic disaster which had finally overtaken the Formerly Great Welfare State of California, currently engaged in churning out the nation's primary supply of semiconductors and robotic devices.  From time to time Mal was sure he could catch the scent of burning silicon, an aroma which troubled him more than the stockyard smell he was sometimes obliged to deal with.  The only good that he could see coming from the Big City was the ever-increasing demand for crops and livestock, the demand that kept rural businesses like his uncle's ranch in business.

He had escaped the suburbs of northwest Houston just in time.  The Big City was even now completing its linkup with the Lesser City, the Houston metro area, engulfing those quaint subdivisions into a new kind of inner city morass, soon to be surrounded by another generation of skyscrapers and bereft of parks and visible skies.  Although his living arrangement entailed, at the end of his two-year stint as a ranch hand, his uncle covering two years of tuition at the vocational school of his choosing, at this early stage in his existence out here he couldn't imagine ever wanting to do anything but raise livestock and range over open spaces.

This being a Saturday, he'd slept in, as was his custom.  He never had to set an alarm clock; he'd always managed to wake up right on time, even in junior high school.  He was never one for reminiscences--his memory seemed to become hazier and less well-defined as it stretched backward, and there was little in his childhood of much interest to him today--but he took a fair amount of pride in his awareness of the present.  It was what propelled him to take such good care of himself, to enjoy the moment, and to stave off fears of the future.  He'd never regarded himself as especially bright, but he'd always known he was more aware than most--perhaps the paranoia was simply an aspect of that--and he suspected that even his senses were more attuned and penetrating than those of his peers.

But he did hope that as he became used to the openness of the air out here, and began to feel less boxed-in than he had been through adolescence, the paranoia might begin to weaken and slip away.  So far, there was no sign of this happening.

He dropped to the prone position and knocked out fifty pushups, then did another twenty one-armed pushups for each arm.  Impatient to get outside, he decided to forego the situps and crunches this morning, and sat down to put on his running shoes.

Out in the sunlight, he marveled as always in the profusion of bird and animal sounds, sounds that were simply unavailable to any urban dweller.  Other than stray dogs, feral cats and rats, no outdoor animal called the city home these days.  Birds were denied their migratory routes by cloud-high skyscrapers, and denied perching and foraging grounds by the absence of trees, so they simply circumvented the urban hyperplex and crowded more densely than ever into the fields and trees here.  Toads still eked out a living in the city streets and gutters, mostly reserving their calls for the hours between sunset and sunrise, but increasingly confused by the ever-more-blinding illumination of industrial night in a city that had long ago forgotten how to sleep.  And other than these, and the noise of mass transit and machinery, the only non-recorded, non-broadcast sounds found in the city were of crickets.

He trotted up the driveway to the highway, listened briefly for approaching trucks, and began his jog.  This morning's sights included a squashed garter snake, a couple squashed toads, a squashed possum, and a squashed something unidentifiable.  As much as he loved and admired wildlife, he could never suppress the surge of amused disgust that accompanied these observations.  Hundreds of millions of years of evolution had endowed all these creatures with superbly-tuned senses and instincts for avoiding predators and aggressors, and yet after more than two centuries of human mechanization, animals still hadn't learned the basic trick of looking both ways before crossing the roads.

He ran a mile east, then doubled back, running until he'd gone a mile west of the house and then doubling back again.  Four miles in all.  As usual, he was hardly feeling the strain when he trotted back up the driveway, not out of breath at all, just a trifle warm.  Although he hadn't yet broken a noticeable sweat--if he had perspired at all, the dry air here had wicked it away before it could dampen his shirt--he thought he could feel it just beneath the surface, ready to spill forth now that he was no longer cruising through the breeze.  He decided to go for a swim to cool down.

Removing his shirt, shoes and socks, he paused for another listen to the bird calls and insect chattering around the guest house's landscaping.  Then he headed to the concrete apron around the pool, feeling the pavement heat trying to singe the still-soft undersides of his feet.  Before getting in, he figured he might as well take care of his regular morning chore and inspect the skimmer baskets for unwelcome biota.  As usual, there were leaves, dead insects and a good double handful of frogs between the two skimmers, and three of the frogs hadn't survived their exposure.  He felt that amused disgust again.  These animals had stock ponds, drainage ditches, and mudholes to hang out in, but they were repeatedly drawn back to this pool, from which they could not escape without assistance, and in which they frequently took on too much water to survive.  How well-designed can any creature really be if it doesn't comprehend the difference between its natural habitat and an attractive deathtrap?

The water would probably still be uncomfortably cold this early in the day, so he opted to come in slowly using the steps, relaxing for a moment when on the pool floor before continuing toward the deep end.  With the relatively-unbuoyant stride of the exceptionally muscular, he sank naturally a bit with each additional step, until the water closed over his head and the bird noise became lost in the sound of bubbles, splashes and the pool pump.

Almost immediately, he sensed something was wrong.  Crouching momentarily to provide himself some propulsion, he kicked off the floor toward the surface.  When the water broke and his face reached air again, he tried treading water, only to realize that movement was difficult.  A sort of progressive paralysis was rapidly overtaking him, and for the first time in memory, he was feeling out of breath.  A surge of panic swept over him as the feel of the cold water gave way to numbness, and his vision began to fade to a starry, swirling blackness.  This is it, he thought in desperation.  This is what the paranoia was all about.  But there was no time to qualify this thought, or examine what it implied.  As the water closed over his head for the last time, one final impression swept in, chasing out everything else:  that intrusive, outrageous smell of burning silicon.

Back at AndroPal Quality Control Laboratory #23, the primary monitor for Mal9702 went dark, followed less than a second later by a half-dozen secondary monitors.  Mal's signal had been lost.

"There goes another one," said Bob.

"Third one this week," said Ted.  "I guess you were right."  He was glad they hadn't put any money on Bob's conjecture.  "Now what?  Back to the drawing board?"

"No.  Just back to what I've been saying.  The cameras, transmitters and extra battery capacity required to make them work are simply too heavy for routine use.  The soft plastic seals over the camera gymbals are inadequate to sustained use after prolonged exposure to sun and heat extremes.  Let's just take the cameras back out until we solve the problem with the seals, and fill the volume for the time being with buoyant material."

Ted rolled his eyes, inwardly, while outwardly nodding in resigned agreement.  "Another nice-to-have down the drain."  At least the memory-implantation technique seemed to be working fine.

Bob, who had once been AndroPal's senior engineer until his attitude problems had demoted him to QC stooge, stood up, ready to go log his final report on the swimming tests.  "It was never a requirement to begin with.  People aren't buying these things so they can sit and watch first-person perspectives hour after hour.  They're buying androids to help with tasks and relate to them face-to-face."

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