Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Annual Holiday Pod Story

I had wanted to have this written in time to post for Friday Fiction last week, but unfortunately things have stayed a little too busy for me to finalize the idea and get it written before today.

Through the series of Pod books, Christmas has a special significance to the members of the Pod. This is largely due to the efforts Josh takes to make it special for them the first couple of years, building on what they had experienced when the Pod was still living and learning in the Nursery with Dr. Marcel.

This story takes place “behind the scenes” in the Pod Holiday Story from last Christmas,
“Finding the Magic.” That story focuses primarily on Marta’s POV, and I felt like it would be good to see some of it from Josh’s POV. Merry Christmas, and I hope you enjoy this gift.

The Santa Stigma
By Rick Higginson

He found the box in the island store room where he’d stashed the stuff from the house that he had wanted to keep. It wasn’t as dusty as when he’d removed it from the garage at his house, but it still seemed to have accumulated more than it should have in the short time it had been in the new location. He blew the dust away with a well-directed breath, and read the writing on the top. His father’s blocky print listed the contents, and for a moment Joshua Cardan felt again like a little boy holding his parents’ treasures.

The box had been sealed since the winter before his mother died, packed away when joy had still filled their old home. The following year, when Josh had brought it down from the attic, his father had just left it sitting unopened in the living room for a few days, before taking it back to the attic. Without her beside him, he had seen no point in celebrating. By the next winter, Dad was again beside Mom in the adjacent grave.

When he’d sorted through his parents’ possessions before putting the house on the market, Josh had not been able to bring himself to donate the box along with so many other things. Though it had remained unopened, he had stored it in his new house, and then brought it out to the island.

He carried the box to his new office and placed it on the desk. With his pocketknife, he sliced the tape across the top flaps, and with an almost guilty feeling, opened it. The plastic bags inside were all still sealed, and he lifted the first from the box. The old book showed its years of use, and when he removed it from the bag, he thought he could still smell his mother’s favorite lotion lingering on it. I never grew tired of hearing you read this one, Mom. What I’d give to have you here to read it just once more.

With the book set to one side on the desk, he removed the box of special ornaments and placed them safely aside, and then reverently touched the clear bag that was next in the stack. The crimson fabric within had not faded over the years, nor had the memory of the conversation he’d had with his father the year the suit had been made.

Santa Claus, Dad? Santa has to be the cruelest hoax ever foisted on kids.

Whatever do you mean, Josh?

Look at it, Dad. You know what some of the kids at the Country Club are like, and even though everyone knows they’re not good kids, they’re going to get more toys from ‘Santa’ than any ten kids ought to get. Yet, Diego’s siblings are all good kids, but his parents can’t afford to buy anything near the number or quality of gifts. How do you explain to someone like Diego’s little sister why she was good and got so little, while an obnoxious spoiled brat got everything she asked for and more?

You already know the answer to that, son. We can’t really explain away the stigma that goes with the Santa story, but that’s not the point of Santa Claus at all.

So what is the point? Why spend so much getting a custom Santa suit made to wear to this charity event if even you can’t make sense of it all?

What makes you think I can’t make sense of it?

You just said we can’t explain away the stigma of the good and bad disparity.

Josh, what is Santa all about?

Scaring kids into being good, so they get gifts on Christmas.

No, Josh. Maybe that’s what it looks like too often, but what Santa Claus is really about is the magic of giving with no expectation of receiving. The man that the legends started with did that, and it follows the whole theme of the original Christmas story. I’m not going to put on a Santa suit to scare kids into behaving. I’m going to put this on so I can get into the character of someone who gives gifts, not exchanges them.

I never thought about it that way, Dad.

You would never have thought about the disparity between your gifts and Diego’s a few years ago, either. You’re growing up, Joshua. You’re developing empathy and a sense of fairness. Someday, the Cardan business is going to be yours, and I hope you find the opportunities to use what you have to give to others.

I could do that without wearing a silly red suit, Dad.

Yes, you could, but I hope you never grow so old that you can’t find a little magic in being Santa Claus.

He lifted the Santa suit from the box. I can’t fill this suit the way you did, Dad. I’m not sure I could even wear it without getting it altered to fit me, but I found the magic. He opened the bag and removed just the hat, placing it on his head with a growing smile. I wonder if you and Mom can see me. What would you think of the Pod, Dad? Would you find Marta as delightful as I do?

He separated the large red bag from the rest of the costume, and resealed the plastic around the suit. With a shake, he opened the bag and began transferring decorations into it. It’s Christmas Eve, Dad, and I’m going to be Santa Claus. I don’t care about the stigma any more. I don’t care if some people don’t like Santa, or if they think he represents all that’s bad about the commercialization of Christmas. He grabbed a tissue from the box in the side drawer of his desk, and wiped his nose.

It’s Christmas Eve, and I’m really looking forward to giving with no expectation of receiving anything in return, Dad.

With the decorations and some candy in the bag, he placed the book on top and pulled the drawstring tight. The bag with the tree was already waiting near the ladder to the Pod’s cavern, and while the utility tunnel was no chimney, it seemed completely appropriate that Santa should arrive that way.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Friday Fiction for December 11, 2009

For the second Christmas themed Friday Fiction, I decided to post one of my favorites from last year’s Christmas themed Challenge Entries. I really enjoyed writing this one, mostly because it’s the kind of thing Nancy and I would pull.

Friday Fiction this week is hosted by Karleen over on Homespun Expressions. Be sure to find MckLinky there for some great reading.

Card Games

Topic: Christmas Cards

Challenge Entry, week of November 6, 2008

Highly Commended, Masters Level; #6 in Editor’s Choice

The long weekend was over. The refrigerator was full of turkey leftovers, the kids and grandkids had left the house looking like a riot had taken place, and the only one that seemed to have gotten enough sleep was the cat, who had mooched more turkey than any three cats should have been able to eat.

Worse, the company had sent her husband off on another emergency overseas business trip. He’d left in the wee hours of the morning on a red-eye for the coast, where he would catch the overseas flight out of Los Angeles.

She gave the cat a farewell scratch, which earned her a purr, a turned up chin, and a puzzled look when she stopped, before she walked out the door. Opening the car door, she set her purse on the passenger seat, and with the stiffness the cold weather always brought, settled in.

A red envelope rested on the steering wheel, its corners tucked into the elastic of the steering wheel cover. With a smile, she opened it and read the card. The preprinted message was romantic and slightly suggestive, followed by her husband’s handwriting. “I wanted to be sure the first Christmas card you received this year was from me. I love you, Nina. Roy.”

She started the car, feeling a little less of the post-Thanksgiving let-down, and backed out of the garage into the cool morning air. The drive to work was less stressful than normal, and it seemed many people had extended their weekends into Monday. The office, likewise, wasn’t as crowded as normal, and she grabbed a cup of coffee from the bagel cart on her way to her desk.

A group of her co-workers stood around her cubicle as she approached, and shot her curious glances. “Okay, Nina,” the nearest one said. “What’d he do?”

“Pardon me?” she asked, and then saw the flowers on her desk, with a large green envelope taped to the front. This card was still romantic, but lacked the suggestive aspect. She appreciated that with her co-workers straining to read over her shoulder. “Just in case you missed the other card. I’m looking forward to another Christmas with you. Love, Roy.”

The teasing from her co-workers couldn’t diminish the warm feeling all day, particularly when the electronic card from her husband arrived in her e-mail that afternoon. “There’s nobody I’d rather meet under the mistletoe,” this one read.

No matter how rude the drivers were on the way home, nothing dampened her mood that evening. She walked into the house, sorting through the mail, and found a yellow envelope. This card was silly, but the message still made her smile grow. “No matter where this life sends me, I’ll always send you my love at Christmas and every day.”

She opened the freezer for some vegetables to go with her leftover turkey, and found the white envelope inside a freezer bag. “I love how you thaw me out on cold winter days,” he’d written in that card.

Dinner in hand, she opened the entertainment center to watch her favorite television program. Another red envelope was taped to the front of the TV. This card’s message said, “It’s a Wonderful Life with you as my wife. (See? I can write poetry)”

After her program and taking care of the few dishes she’d used for dinner, she slipped into her robe and retrieved a clean towel for her bath. A blue envelope rested just under the top towel. The illustration on the front of the card showed a puddle of water, with a few pieces of coal and a carrot in the middle. “Thinking of you in a bubble bath has the same effect on me,” Roy’s handwriting read right below the humorous Christmas greeting.

In her flannel nightgown, she sat in the bed and unzipped the cover of her Bible. Another card was tucked in the pages, and she opened the envelope to find a classic depiction of the Nativity. “Of all the gifts God has given me, Christmas lets me celebrate the two best – our Savior, and you. I thank God for the love He has demonstrated in my life through both of those gifts, and I pray that I’m able to be even a fraction of the blessing you’ve been to me.”

With the card setting on the night stand, she fell asleep wondering how he was enjoying the cards she’d hidden in his luggage.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Friday Fiction for December 4, 2009

Friday Fiction is hosted this week by Karlene, at Homespun Expressions. Be sure to look for MckLinky there, and the other wonderful submissions for the first Friday Fiction of the Holiday Season.

For the next three weeks, I plan on following the holiday theme for FF, and I decided to start off with the one that was my first ever 1st place entry from the Weekly Challenge on Faithwriters. This one wasn’t really fiction, but a somewhat stylized telling of a real event.

This is a snapshot of our first Christmas together as husband and wife. In so many ways, it cemented us together, and Nancy has often said that she has since felt if we could get through that time, we could get through almost anything. I entered Emanuel Hospital in Portland Oregon on Nov. 23, 1980, and was discharged on Jan. 2, 1981.

Counting the Drops

By Rick Higginson

Topic: Countdown to Christmas/Advent

Challenge Entry, Week of October 23, 2008

1st place, Advanced level; #10 in Editor’s Choice

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The slow, metered drops in the I.V. tube counted the time as much as the second hand on the clock did. Perhaps, more so, since after a certain number of them, the nurse would be in to change the bag.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The tube had carried his Thanksgiving “dinner” into his system, and unless his non-functioning digestive system started working again soon, his Christmas dinner would likewise enter his body through his veins.

The television reminded him often that Christmas was fast approaching. The commercials for all the latest “gotta have” gifts were bad enough, but the ones for all the holiday foods were almost torture.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Happy families on television carved turkeys, hams, and passed around slices of pie. Candies and beverages were touted as essential for Yule gatherings, and the occasional joke was made about weight gain. The odd fluids trickling into his body were barely adequate to maintain his weight, and the doctors were worried; he’d already been lean for his height when he’d arrived, and he’d since lost nearly twenty pounds.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

This wasn’t how their first Christmas together as husband and wife was supposed to have gone. Sure, money was tight and gifts would have been modest, but they’d already bought an inexpensive tree for the apartment and some budget ornaments. When he’d first gone to the Emergency Room with abdominal pain the weekend before Thanksgiving, he hadn’t even imagined he could still be there on Christmas.

No one was optimistic about it now; their first Christmas together was going to be spent in the surgical ward. No cantatas, no singing with the choir, no Christmas Eve service, and no sitting beside their first tree, watching each other’s face while they opened their gifts.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Cycling through the channels on the T.V., he looked for something better than the annoying sit-com. The hospital staff had brought a hide-a-bed chair into his room so that his wife could spend the nights in the room with him, rather than alone in their low-rent apartment. She was off taking care of other things, though, so he hoped for something to take his mind off the boredom.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The image of a church building came up on the screen, and the sound of people singing Christmas carols. He set the remote aside and watched, wishing for the world he was free of the tubes that ran down the back of his throat to his stomach and beyond so that he could sing with the program.

There was no sales-pitch accompanying the program, and no promotions; just unseen people singing. He listened, carried away by the pure spirit of the season, untarnished by any undertones of commercialism.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

The drops rolled from his cheeks to the gown, the moments until Christmas marked by the fluid passage of life both into and out of his body. The program lasted for nearly a half-hour, providing a touch he so desperately wanted. Christmas would come, even to a hospital room in Portland, Oregon.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

Christmas would come, and she would be there. It would still be their first Christmas together, and God had just shown him that His Spirit would not be kept away, either.

“Joy to the world, the Lord has come,” he had sung many times. The Messiah had been born in less than ideal circumstances, and the birth had been joyful. The joy could still be felt despite the situation.

Drip. Drip. Drip.

He would just keep counting.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sort of Friday Fiction for November 27, 2009

I’m running late for Friday Fiction this week. Maybe a whole week late, for that matter. “Empty Threats” is nearly complete, and once again I find it interesting how some things change from my original plotting, to the final words of the first draft. In chapter 3, posted back on Nov. 13th, I introduced what was supposed to be a minor character, an Empty named Em. As the story developed, though, Em started to take on a larger role than I originally planned. Her voice grew in importance for the story, and it was in this chapter that she really became more than just an “extra”.

It’s probably just as well that I’m late, and we’ll just call this last week’s entry, since Friday Fiction is off this week for the holiday. I hope you enjoy the Empty Perspective.

Chapter 9

Empty Perspective

Peri sat in the dayroom late into the night, watching the media reports on the monitor. The seditious broadcast had polarized the Alsafi population. The media showed both those who agreed with the speaker, and those who worked to refute the xenophobic rhetoric. The news gave an image of a larger percentage of moderate, reasonable people who didn’t view any outsiders as a threat to Alsafi’s economic health, but the speech had left a residual doubt whether the media was truly presenting an objective perspective, or whether it was selectively feeding information to promote a given conclusion.

Of one thing he was certain, though – his odds of securing a paying manifest from Alsafi had been slight before, and hadn’t gotten any better with the revolutionary bringing the bigotry into the open. I should just leave and deadhead elsewhere; I could stay here two seasons and be no closer to a profitable manifest than I am now.

He sent the instructions to Stardreamer to begin initial pre-flight diagnostics, and received an immediate query from Eldorado Hub Control concerning the sensed activity. Routine checks, he transmitted the reply. Ship vacant.

Hub Control transmitted a subtle probing of Stardreamer’s interface, checking for potential overrides that could be exploited if needed.

Keep trying, he thought with a laugh, but didn’t transmit the message. There were only three vessels ever made with the kind of pilot interface that Stardreamer has, and the other two were scrapped after only a few voyages. The only way to override my control is if you can duplicate me.

Em entered the dayroom, straightening the chairs and doing the necessary tidying up. She gave him a curious look as she approached. “Is there a problem with your bed?” she asked. “If so, you’re certainly welcome to try a different one.”

“The bed is fine,” he said. “I was just watching the media reports and wondering what might happen tomorrow.”

She shrugged. “Tomorrow, I will clean the hall, process my daily report, handle any requests the Rovers might have, and order my groceries for the next week.”

He gestured towards the display. “Does any of that worry you?”

“I have my job to do. That is all I should be concerned with.”

“Did you hear the broadcast challenging the Ruling Council?”

“I heard it, but it does not matter. Regardless of who is on the Ruling Council, or who occupies the chairs of the Adon, the Rover Hall must still be taken care of.”

“But what do you think about what he said, Em?”

Her expression turned to puzzlement. “I don’t know,” she finally said. “No one ever asked me what I thought about anything before. I’m not supposed to think about things other than my job.”

“Why not?”

Her voice grew quiet. “Because I am an Empty, and I am only supposed to know about and think about the things that fit my requisition.”

“That’s all?”

She shook her head ever so slightly. “Sometimes, when I’m awake at night, I think about what it was like before my requisition was filled, and how I remember waking up from the filling and realizing how much different it felt to be filled instead of empty. I think about Rovers like you, who come through here, and the things you talk about and the places you go, and I wonder just how empty my life now would seem if I could experience what you have.”

“Sleipnir said this hall is your whole world, and that you wouldn’t be able to handle life outside of here. Is that true?”

She nodded. “I have no programming for anything outside this job, and I’m afraid to leave here. An Empty has no right to leave their job, but more than that, we have a programmed-in compulsion to stay.”

“Do you believe in God, Em?”

“God is not part of my programming. I have enough knowledge to engage in polite conversation regarding religious concepts, but God is no less abstract to me than your vessel sitting at the Hub. My belief is limited to believing that you say your vessel is there. I cannot believe in God. I can only agree that you say you believe.”

“You’re human, Em. You have a soul, and as such, you have the ability to choose what you believe.”

“A soul is not something that I am programmed to have.”

“Maybe not by the people who made you into an Empty, but I assure you, God programmed you to have a soul, and no human anywhere can take that away from you.”

“You should stop,” she said. “Attempting to corrupt an Empty’s programming is a felony crime. It can get you arrested, and if they suspect you may have succeeded, they may remove me from my job and replace me with a new Empty.”

“Why not just reprogram you?”

“They can’t. They can revise the original programming by additional filling, but they cannot erase what is already in the mind. If the programming gets corrupted, we are processed out from the Empty system.”

“Processed out, as in, released from your compulsory service?”

“An Empty cannot be released or otherwise left without a job. If we are no longer needed for our original requisition, our only options are to be reassigned to fill a new requisition that our original programming is compatible with, or to be processed out and removed from the system. Our remains are used for medical research, tissue donation, educational purposes, and then whatever is left is efficiently disposed of.”

“If you lose your job, you die?”

“Legally, I am not technically a living person in the first place, so death is not an applicable term. We are either reassigned or outprocessed, and I am programmed that either option is equally acceptable.”

No wonder the sentiment is so strong to shake off the rule of the Colonial Council. If the full extent of this were known to the rest of the Archipelago, they might actually try sending in an enforcement team. “I don’t believe that either option is equally acceptable, even for you. I think that if someone were to attack you, your instinct to survive would still be there. I think you would fight for your life, because without some sense of self-preservation, you would be a poor investment.” He took her hand and turned it palm-up, and placed his fingers on her wrist. “You live – your heart beats, you breathe, you eat, you think and you feel. Regardless of what local law defines you as, you are a living person.”

She withdrew her hand. “You are trying to corrupt my programming. I don’t want either of us to get in trouble for this.”

“Your programming was corrupted from the start. They want you to accept the lie that you can never be more than what they created you to be, but that’s not true. You have a mind, and you can learn. You have a soul, and you have choices.”

“I am an Empty, and that’s all I can ever be.” She hurried from the dayroom to her office, and shut the door.

He watched a few more minutes of the media reports, and then shut down the display. Closing his eyes, he considered the situation in the peaceful silence. After a while, he softly canted a prayer and then waited in the Qi’le fashion for any sense of a response from God.

“Oh, there is someone in here,” Sleipnir said from the door.

Peri opened his eyes. “I was just thinking and praying a little,” he said.

The older man was wearing a pair of faded sleep pants. “Can’t say as I blame you. I just got up to take a leak, and saw the lights still on in here and figured I’d see if there was any reason for ‘em.”

“I think I’ll go ahead and leave tomorrow, Sleipnir. It makes more sense to just go somewhere that doesn’t have a problem contracting manifests out to transient Rovers.”

Sleipnir pulled one of the chairs over and took a seat. “You sure you don’t wanna wait a couple of days first, and see if things calm down a bit? It might not be exactly safe to be out on the streets if the local folks are still stirred up in the morning.”

“I think it’s better than even chances that things are only going to get worse as time passes. I’m certain that the instigator isn’t just going to make his one broadcast and then vanish. He didn’t issue a call to activism – he made a call to arms, even if he tried to make it sound less than that. He wants the people stirred up, and he needs to promote an unanswered threat to rally the masses.” He looked the old Rover in the eye. “You said it yourself; they dislike offworld Rovers more than they dislike offworlders. We may be safe here tonight, but it won’t be long before someone gets the idea to come to the Rover Hall after us. You might have an easier time getting by them, since you’re full-blooded Terran, but I have the distinct impression it’s not going to be long until this isn’t a good place to be a Qi’le Rover. It’ll be much better if I’m already accelerating out of the system before that time.”

Sleipnir sighed, and looked away. “I was tryin’ to come up with a good argument against that, but I can’t think of one.”

“If it’s any consolation, I’ll bet your emigration manifest will fill up a lot faster now. I won’t be surprised if there aren’t a number of people who will decide to leave while they can.”

“Refugees ain’t always the best payin’ passengers.”

“True, but they’re also not going to have too much problem with a non-Alsafish Rover, are they?”

He chuckled. “It might just work out well for Kuahairo, even.”

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Friday Fiction for November 13, 2009

This week’s Friday Fiction is another excerpt from my NaNoWriMo project, “Empty Threats.” This one gives a good glimpse at the main character, Peri, and his first experience with the titular Empties on Alsafi.

Special props to those who recognize the origins of the other two Rover Vessel names in this chapter without having to look them up. Now, to get this posted to Pod Tales and get back to work on “Empty Threats.”

Chapter 3

Rover Hall

Afternoon had faded into early evening when Peri walked back out onto the street, a full stomach and a contented feeling adding a bit of bounce to his step as he resumed his journey. The district he walked through was older, but well taken care of, with businesses and offices promoting their services via high-tech advertising. Some of the buildings offered living space on the upper floors, and many of these welcomed commuters home through their doors.

Just one of the residential buildings alone could easily house more people than the entire village of T’Cha where he’d grown up, though he chuckled at the way fate could twist things. For all the wealth of the entire city of Eldorado, and all the technology of Alsafi, the most pivotal event in the Archipelago’s colonial expansion had taken place in a small, quiet village on Qi’le.

The road curved, roughly following the perimeter of the Hub. More of the store fronts and offices were vacant, and the buildings less cared for than in the previous neighborhood. Idle people watched him walk by, some with the complacent curiosity, and others with appraising interest. The latter he challenged with direct eye contact, wearing a mask of fearless confidence that hopefully would deter attempts to victimize him. All technology aside, people were people, and an image of strength was as effective on the streets of Eldorado as it was in the corrupt districts of the Temple City on Qi’le. If he could look like a high risk target with low potential gain, then no one would bother him.

The Rover Hall was set back on a side street, close enough to the Hub tarmac that, had it not been for the fence, it would actually be a short walk to the waiting vessels. The building was arguably the most run-down in the area, and had it not been for another rover snoozing in a chair on the porch, he might have thought the Hall had moved to a new location.

The natural stone steps leading to the door were cracked and crumbling, and the masonry walls showed the fissures of uncounted thermal extremes. Whatever local entity was responsible for the building had obviously not invested much in its external upkeep, and as he put his hand on the old manual door, he hoped the interior might have at least warranted some maintenance attention.

The door hinges let out an almost comical creak as he pushed his way into the foyer. Low energy, high efficiency lighting shown from faded sconces onto the walls and floor, and the door banged shut behind him. Like the exterior of the building, the interior begged for a serious refurbishment, though what he could see looked as though it were kept as clean as humanly possible. It needed repair, but it wasn’t dirty.

A small office on the far side of the foyer stood open, and he poked his head through the doorway. The ancient desk was tidy, and music played at a low volume from somewhere inside it. If there were a Hall Attendant on duty, though, was not apparent.

The dormitory area, just off to the right of the office, was smaller than he expected, with only eight beds divided between two opposing walls. Pillows rested on two of the beds, indicating which were already spoken for, and he selected one of the vacant cots with a polite margin from the other two. A fresh pillow from the storage cabinet by the locker served as his ‘taken’ notice for the bed, and he placed his luggage in the compartment beneath it.

A middle-aged woman emerged from the comfort facilities at the far end of the dormitory, followed by a remote laden with dirty bath linens.

“Excuse me,” Peri said, when she was close enough to him for polite conversation. “Are you the Hall Host? I need to check in.”

She smiled mechanically. “I’m the local host, but you should have been checked-in automatically as you entered the building. The system should have detected your transponder, confirmed your status as a Rover, and noted your use of the Hall Services.”

“I don’t have a transponder to detect.”

“Nonsense,” she said. “Every child born in the Archipelago is given a transponder within forty-eight hours of their birth. It’s the law.”

“My home world is not part of the Archipelago, and we prefer to not have transponders implanted in our bodies.”

She gave him another look. “Yeah, now that you mention it, you do have the Eridani look. Fine; I’ll just manually enter you into the terminal. What’s your vessel?”

“I am Stardreamer.”

“Welcome to Rover Hall Eldorado, Stardreamer. Everyone that comes through here just calls me Em, and it’s just me taking care of this place. You’ll find clean towels and other bath supplies in the cabinets to the right when you enter the CF. Right now, we only have two working shower stalls and one functional bathtub, so if by any chance we fill up the beds, I might have to ask you to limit your bathing time. We have an arrangement with Contract Consorts to provide padding, and they can usually accommodate whatever preferences you might have in that regard.”

“I’m fine; I’d just like to take a shower and relax for the evening.”

She shrugged. “The right kind of padding can help you relax, but suit yourself. If you change your mind, just let me know and I’ll put through the request. It usually only takes them a few minutes to get someone here, and they’ll stay anywhere from just long enough to take care of business, to being a constant companion for your entire visit.”

“Thank you, but really, I’m fine with sleeping alone.”

“Okay. If you find a problem or need anything, just call out my name and the system will alert me, wherever I am. Right now, I need to send this remote on down to the laundry, and go take care of trying again to get someone in here to fix the broken plumbing in the CF.” She sighed. “As much trouble as it’s been lately to get any help in here, you’d think our credits weren’t as good as anyone else’s.” She continued to grumble as she walked away.

He waited until she had entered her office, and then stripped down to his underwear. The dirty clothing went into a bin at the foot of the bed, where a remote would collect it sometime that evening, wash it, and return it by morning. The clean clothes were arranged on the bed for after his shower, save for the clean underwear he would don in the CF before walking through the dorm. While many Rovers had no issue with nudity in the Halls, he still preferred to maintain some modesty.

Modesty, though, was a rather futile effort considering the open toilet stalls and the lack of either doors or curtains across the showers. Draping the towel and his clean underwear over a bar outside the shower, he finished undressing and prompted the water flow with the verbal command. With one hand in the spray, he adjusted the temperature. “Warmer,” he said, and waited for the results. “Warmer,” once again, and he stepped into the shower.

While the initial rinse washed away only the superficial layer of accumulated salts from dried sweat, oils, and expired skin cells, it still felt like a dramatic improvement. He started scrubbing, beginning with his face and head, and working down towards his feet.

“You ain’t hoggin’ all the hot water over there, are you?”

Peri rinsed his face, and wiped his eyes. A stocky, older man with more gray hair on his back than on his head was adjusting the water in the other shower. “The water is heated on demand at each fixture,” Peri said. “I can’t hog it all.”

The older man glanced back over his shoulder with an amused look. “That was meant to be a joke,” he said. “I ain’t never seen a Rover Hall so primitive as to have a central water heating system.”

“Oh,” Peri said. “My apologies. I’m not quite as good at detecting humorous inflections in English.”

“Huh,” the man said, stepping into the shower. He began soaping up his bald scalp. “So what language would you catch jokes in?”

He turned to rinse the lather from his back. “Humor has its own melodic elements in Qi’le.”

“So, you’re Eridani, then?”

“We prefer to be referred to as Qi’le.”

“Son, if you ain’t noticed, I have a hard enough time pronouncin’ English good enough for the proper folks. There ain’t no way I’m gonna manage to sing no Eridani words even half good enough for you to know what I’m sayin’. I’d rather chance insultin’ you by callin’ you the common Terran word, than risk callin’ you something worse ‘cause I so butchered the Eridani word that I accidentally said somethin’ really bad.”

“I suppose that’s reasonable.”

“Now, you, on the other hand, speak English mighty good for an Eridani.”

“There are a number of Terrans in my family, so I was raised around both languages. Since I was raised on Qi’le, though, it is what I am most familiar with.”

“I ain’t seen you in here before. You just arrive on Alsafi?”

“I made my descent earlier today.”

“I been here a couple of weeks, after comin’ in with a whole load of SusAn chambers. You can call me Sleipnir.”

“Stardreamer,” Peri said. “I brought in several containers of ferl fruit, and one of the medical salve.”

“Huh, yeah – stuff they can’t really produce locally. Alsafi likes to boast that they’re one of the only colony worlds to reach true self-reliance. There ain’t a lot of goods bein’ shipped in anymore, and not a lot bein’ shipped out. I’m on hold for an emigration charter that’s filling up with folks that want to go somewhere else, so I’ll haul containerized SusAn chambers back to Earthrise just as soon as they’re ready, but the other Rover here ain’t found any outbound manifests to pay his way elsewhere.”

“I can afford to absorb a deadhead run, but I’d rather not if I can avoid it.”

“That’s just it – Kuahairo can’t afford that much unpaid time to go somewhere that might have better manifest prospects. There’s still a lien on the Kuahairo that’s coming due.”

He turned off the shower and grabbed the towel. “If the Stardreamer wasn’t paid for, I’d likely have the same problem.”

“The Sleipnir is almost paid off. I’ve had her so long that the payments ain’t that big a deal no more. I’ve reached the point that I can pick and choose the manifests I wanna take, instead of feelin’ like I gotta take any I can get, just to cover costs.”

He dropped the towel on the floor and stepped onto it before pulling on his clean underwear. “I tend to be selective about my manifests, too, though this one was more of a favor to old family friends. They own the ferl groves, and wanted the fruit shipment to come directly here, rather than routing through another system.”

Sleipnir chuckled. “You gettin’ dressed here in the CF?”

“Just enough to cover. I prefer not running around naked anyway, and the Hall Host seemed a bit too preoccupied with setting me up with some local padding.”

“Ah, don’t let that bother you none. She don’t mean nothin’ by it, and that’s just how it is for an Empty. She was programmed to take care of the Hall and us Rovers, so they left out any kinda social conventions that might make that awkward for her. You could ask her to arrange for the most twisted thing you can imagine, and so long as it don’t mean someone gettin’ hurt, she won’t think anything wrong about it.”

“Uh, ‘that’s how it is for an Empty’? What do you mean?”

“You ain’t never been to Alsafi before?”

“This is my first manifest here.”

“Alsafi’s the only place in the Archipelago where they grow people for sale. They call ‘em ‘Empties’ ‘cause their minds are like empty data storage units. An Empty is kinda like a little kid, knowin’ just enough to take care of themself and express needs, until someone puts in an order for one, and then they get their brain programmed with whatever the buyer wants the Empty to know. Em’s one of ‘em. She was bought to be the Rover Hall Host, and that’s what they programmed her for. This Hall is her whole world, and if anyone tried to take her away from this, she’d honestly not know what to do with herself. She’d as likely die without this place, ‘cause she couldn’t handle the change.”

“That’s – obscene.”

“That’s Alsafi, son. You want to stay out of trouble while you’re here, then listen good. Folks here are different from other worlds in the Archipelago. This world ain’t run by the Corporations so much anymore as by a new system of royalty. They got the best technology anywhere, and they all think it means they’re better’n anyone else. They got social classes here, and there’s two classes called ‘Elite’. An Elite decides they don’t like you, and they can make your life miserable without much effort. The Elites like their Empties, and they don’t take kindly to outsiders like us tellin’ ‘em what’s wrong with that. The Archipelago Constitution is second-fiddle here to the Alsafi laws, and the only thing they look down on more’n an outsider is a Rover outsider.”

“But, what about the rights guaranteed by the Colonial Council?”

“We’re a long ways from Earthrise an’ the Colonial Council, son. We got rights here just so long as we don’t give them no reason to take ‘em away.” Sleipnir finished his shower and shut the water off. “The Elite are happy pretendin’ we don’t exist, so as long as you keep your mouth shut and don’t force ‘em to see us, we’re better off. Leastways, we got it better than the Empties.” The serious expression made him look much older than before. “We can leave if we want.”

To be continued...

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Friday Fiction for November 6, 2009

Holy cow, I almost missed that it was my turn to host Friday Fiction this week! Things have been really crazy, since the transmission in my wife’s van died last Sunday morning, and we’ve been working on things to rectify the “two jobs, one vehicle” situation all week.

We are now well into this year’s NaNoWriMo, and with everything that has been going on, I’m a bit behind schedule. Not to worry; it’s all fun, no matter what the current word count looks like. I will most likely be posting excerpts from my WriMo project, “Empty Threats” for each Friday Fiction this month. This week, I’m posting Chapter 2, which introduces one of the main characters of the story. “Empty Threats” takes place predominately on a planet in the Sigma Draconis system (also called Alsafi on some star charts), about 18.8 light years from Earth.

This story draws on concepts I first played with in the Challenge Entry, “Exiled With a Fool,” and the follow-on sketch, “The Requisition.” This will be something of a spin-off story in the Eridanus series of books, and so continues in the setting of the Terran Archipelago of colony worlds. I hope you enjoy it.

Chapter 2

Empty Administration

Anthro Resources had grown into one of the most lucrative businesses on the planet, cultivating blank-mind humans called “Empties” that could be requisitioned and programmed for almost any given purpose. Solomon, husband of the priestess G’Se, read over another requisition request from Anthro Resources. His job, despite finding the technology disturbing, was to verify that all requisitions were within the guidelines established by the Ruling Council, and give official approval before any Empty could be filled.

One of the Ruling Elite was requesting a Personal Assistant, and the purchaser’s requirements were carefully drafted to avoid certain keywords that would flag an immediate rejection. Quite often, the only difference between a “personal assistant” and a male or female concubine was how the request was framed and the overall status of the requester. Working Class citizens didn’t have personal assistants, and hence could not requisition one. Then again, the Working Class could rarely afford to requisition a legitimate Domestic, let alone an Empty for the sole purpose of periodic intimate liaisons.

Solomon reviewed the programming criteria for the Empty, which included a significant set of administrative skills that an Executive would benefit from in an assistant – Task Oriented Organization, Charisma and Personal Diplomacy, Image Consultation, Media Presence, and Job Tenacity were among those listed. Countering that were the requirements that the Empty also be young, attractive, and romantically disposed towards someone who, coincidentally, fit the requester’s description.

I couldn’t very well contradict a Ruling Elite and say this Personal Assistant is a concubine, though, could I? he thought as he attached his approval to the request. A lowly Working Class Admin’s word doesn’t outweigh that of the Elite, does it?

The next request was from a member of the Cultural Elite, needing a Domestic for the care of their expected child, and he chuckled at the requester’s stipulation that the Empty be average looking, with an attenuated sexual awareness. Approved.

He took a cold beverage from a snack remote, and sipped it while looking at the next file. On a whim, he opened the proposed programming file for the Empty, and read down through the various categories of education. It wasn’t nearly interesting enough to hold his attention for any length of time, so he returned to the requested duties. This one was needed to augment a labor shortfall in a service industry. While ostensibly an employee of the requesting Corporation, labor Empties were basically a slave programmed to be content with their wages and living conditions. They didn’t aspire to promotions, raises, or more fulfilling work.

I should have stayed home and been a proper husband for a priestess, and then I wouldn’t have these lingering pangs about what we do here. He put the electronic approval stamp on the request, condemning another Empty to a life as a slave, and moved on to the next request.

His supervisor’s face appeared in the corner of the terminal. “Solomon, I need to see you in my office.”

“Now? I just opened another request to review.”

“Now; just approve it and get in here.”

The requirements were given a quick scan to be sure there was nothing blatantly illegal, and he sent it back to Anthro Resources for processing before leaving his desk. His supervisor’s office was a short walk down the hall, and he paused at the open door to be noticed before entering.

The supervisor looked up and waited.

Solomon crossed his wrists below his chin, with palms facing out, in the proper show of respect. The supervisor was a low-level member of the Cultural Elite, but an Elite nonetheless. “You summoned me, Esteemed Sir?”

“Come in and close the door.”

“As you request, Esteemed Sir.” A priestess is of greater importance than you’ll ever be, and she would still give a reciprocal courtesy.

“How long have you been doing this job, Solomon?”

“It will be four years this coming Tria – the tenth of Tria to be exact.”

“It seems our Section Manager has been getting some complaints on how long it takes you to process the requests, and they’re starting to back up.”

“Esteemed Sir, I assure you that I’ve been working through the requests as efficiently as possible, with giving each enough scrutiny to fulfill my task.”

“I’ve been monitoring your performance since late Ena or early Thia this year, and I’ve not been impressed either.”

“You’ve been watching me, Esteemed Sir?”

“I’m your boss – it’s my job.”

“I’ll try to work faster.”

“I hope so, but you’re not going to be working on Empty approvals any longer. For now, I’m putting you over onto Empty tracking. You’re going to handle reviewing the data on the location of all the Empties currently serving on Alsafi, and occasionally pull spot-checks to verify they’re where they’re supposed to be. Can you handle that without falling too far behind?”

“I-” He bit back the retort, and reined in the surge of indignation. “I thought Empty tracking was automatic through the system.”

“It is, but it seems a member of the Ruling Council raised a question in front of the Adon about possible discrepancies in what is being reported, and the Council has requested a human audit of the automatic tracking. It’s a pointless, futile exercise, and I expect you’ll find it even more boring and thankless than your old job of reviewing requests.” He turned away with a dismissive wave. “Since ‘requests’ from the Ruling Council are not something we can refuse, it’s a good job to assign you while I figure out what your permanent status is going to be.”

“I’ve always strived to perform my job well, Esteemed Sir. I can’t imagine how I’ve failed so badly as to be in this situation.”

The supervisor spun back around in his chair with an aggravated huff. “Oh, for – Think about it, Solomon. You don’t fit this world, do you? You were raised on that technologically retarded Eridani planet, surrounded by people happily trapped in their outmoded religion. We can’t even call you by a normal surname, because you’re married to an Eridani priestess and therefore expect to be identified as her husband. If your wife shows up at any social events, you act embarrassed if we don’t show the proper deferral to her clergy status, and she doesn’t even allow your daughters to receive the standard education and socialization from our school system. Your whole family is one big sappy anachronism, and while I would expect that from a native Eridani like your wife, both your parents were Terrans from the Archipelago. You should know better.”

“So, the problem is that I’m happy accepting Qi’le culture?”

He jabbed a finger in his direction. “No, the problem is you’re working on the most modern world in the Terran Archipelago, but you still act like you’re living on the primitive world that has refused to join or catch up with even underdeveloped colony worlds. I don’t know what bureaucrat decided you should work here, but if you’re ever going to fit in and do well, you’re going to have to quit thinking Eridani and start acting Alsafish. Now, get back to work before I decide to find a really odious job for you. Your terminal has been reset for Empty tracking, and I fully expect daily, boring reports of how the Ruling Council was misinformed, and that all filled Empties are where they’re supposed to be, and doing what they’re programmed to do.”

He crossed his wrists under his chin again. “Yes, Esteemed Sir,” he said, and then walked out of the office.

The terminal display had changed since he left, and showed a map of Alsafi. The color spectrum representing the concentration of filled Empties gave the map an appearance of abstract art, showing pale green for areas with few Empties, to deep red for the areas with dense concentrations. The urban center of Eldorado showed the darkest red, and he felt slightly sick thinking of thousands of Empties enduring lives for which they’d been given no choice.

He highlighted a green area with only a few Empties, and began his audit there. Once, slaves were captured from their homes and sold at auction. Now, we just grow them in the lab. He’s right; I don’t really think Alsafish. Maybe I should see if G’Se wants to return to Qi’le, and go back to a world where we do fit in.

To be continued...

Please post a link to your Friday Fiction!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Friday Fiction for October 23rd, 2009

Friday Fiction is hosted this week by Lynn, over at Faith, Fiction, Fun and Fanciful, where you’ll find MckLinky with the list of the other participants this week.

Thirty years ago this weekend, I asked Nancy to marry me, and we made that decision to undertake this wild, incredible adventure called Marriage. Around that same time frame, I wrote this week’s entry for her. Nancy has always loved horses, and that first autumn we were together, she started collecting unicorns (which weren’t nearly as easy to find then as they are now). “Equestrian Fantasy” was a natural expression of her fascination with unicorns, and the crazy obsession of a man in love trying to find them for her.

I’m not sure she’s ever explicitly said so, but I suspect that, of all the things I’ve written, this has long remained her favorite.

I love you Nancy, and I’m looking forward to our next thirty years together.

Equestrian Fantasy
By Rick Higginson c. late 1979
For Nancy

I turned my eyes to a fantasy,
Of other things that I might be.
I fancied myself a jet-black colt
With a single mark like a thunderbolt.
I danced on fields and amidst the trees,
So light to run, so quick to tease.
For maids I had no care nor eye,
My heart was young, my spirit high.

Pegasus I saw me then,
Stately there from knowing when
These bonds of Earth grew too proud,
I’d leave them humble beneath a cloud.
From humankind I’d naught to gain,
I sought only wind to pull my mane.
In summer skies I dance on wings
Keeping time to the song the moonlight sings.

A unicorn I dreamt me now
Upon soil that’d known no plow,
Lord of all free and untamed
In a naked world, yet unashamed.
Then I saw you cross a downy field,
To this princess fair I had to yield.
They called your name – a plea to stay,
But upon my back you rode away.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Friday Fiction for October 16, 2009

Friday Fiction is hosted this week by Sara, on her wildly imaginative blog, Fiction Fusion. With a busy couple of weeks, I’m behind on FF again, but I hope to get caught up this weekend, and I’m looking forward to some great reading.

This Sunday marks one year since my Dad went home through the veil. I’ve commented before that aspects of him show up in a lot of my stories. The good husband and good father characters I write always have some of his traits, and I consider myself extremely blessed to have been given the kind of man that I could seek to emulate in my life, and to honor through my characters.

I think what I miss most are those talks we had. Dad had a great deal of practical sense, with the ability to share it without sounding superior or condescending, and I wanted to post something this week that reminded me especially of him. In this excerpt from “The Eridanus Dream,” the main character, Sean, is speaking with his father-in-law, S’Ru. For those unfamiliar with previous excerpts from the Eridanus series, the italicized dialogue is in the Eridani language. The culture of the world is Matriarchal, with women being the dominant gender, and men expected to be submissive. For background, S’Ru is the husband of the priestess Noma, but when he had failed to sire a child, Noma had taken Plei as her manservant to provide children. It was only after she had done so that she learned she was already pregnant with S’Ru’s only child.

This week is for my father, Frank Higginson, zikhrono livrakha (may his memory be for a blessing). I miss you, Dad.



The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves. People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.

~ Leon Trotsky

The onset of spring not only brought new life to the forest, but to the crew as well. As the white mantle slowly retreated to the higher elevations, the trees all around began to echo with the sounds of life. The snow that had surrounded Pisces had been replaced by mud and fragrant weeds, and one of the first tasks the crew undertook was to gather stones and build a walkway from the ramp to the drier ground beneath the trees. The hatch on the lander remained open for hours at a time, allowing the recycled stale air within to be replaced by fresh air from outside, even though it was still a bit cooler than most found comfortable.

Sean remained busy with various maintenance jobs on the outside of Pisces, having procrastinated on performing them during the freezing temperatures. Systems were disassembled, cleaned, lubricated, and reassembled in a painstaking process that had defied automation over the years. Y’La helped as she could by drawing expertise from his memory for some of the simpler tasks, when her services were not required elsewhere. It was Plei, though, who spent the most time assisting the process. While he could not handle any of the processes alone, he remained close by and offered an extra pair of hands to hold parts and to steady assemblies while Sean worked. The help was welcome, though seldom seriously needed, and the only aspect that bothered Sean was Plei’s nearly puppy-like following in his shadow. He now understood what a former schoolmate had meant when he had talked of how annoying his little brother’s obsessive tagging along was.

S’ru confirmed the situation one day at Sean’s inquiry. I have told him he should not follow you so,” the older man commented. He seldom listens to me, though. Noma fusses about it some; she wishes he had taken such an interest in me when she first took him in, but I do not think he ever fully forgave me for fathering the firstborn.” He glanced about, as though making sure his words would remain private between them. Plei walks on a thin branch with Noma; while his actions are submissive to her, his attitude is not. She sees his subtle rebellion as a minor embarrassment.

That does not explain why he follows me so,” Sean complained.

You do not see it?” S’ru continued patiently. My daughter has a unique relationship with you, even in the realm of B’sela. Tell me honestly; are you submissive to Y’La?

Sean scratched at the beard he’d grown over the winter. I cannot say either of us is really submissive to the other. We consider decisions together.

Exactly; Plei sees you as a reachable example and proof that a man can comfortably be equal with a woman. It has not occurred to him yet that you two are equal by mutual consent, which is something he will never receive from Noma.”

Why not? Y’La is comfortable with it.

Why are you not submissive to Y’La?” S’ru asked pointedly. I am comfortable being submissive to Noma.

Such is not the way men in my world are raised. When Y’La first found me, I told her I would not apologize for being a man of my world.

And Noma should apologize for being a woman of ours?

But Y’La is also a woman of your world, and yet she was able to accept her husband as an equal.

Y’La has the benefit of your mind and your experience to draw upon, and she knows that she can have you no other way. That does not mean that is how she prefers it; I am certain that with the B’sela you have sensed more than a few times when she has felt impatience that you were not more like a priestess’ husband should be.

Sean laughed. You seem to know much about Y’La and me.”

S’ru shared the laughter. This is not a large village and your equality with Y’La is obvious to everyone. I will tell you, it is the subject of a great deal of gossip around here, and nothing short of a scandal. You should have heard the rumors when your friend was allowed into your bedchamber while Y’La was not there.

But with the B’sela, Y’La was effectively present anyway, and even if Amanda had been there for an illicit purpose, the B’sela prevents me from being able to perform that way for anyone but Y’La.”

That is not the point; it is considered highly improper for a woman to visit another’s husband in such intimate confines.”

I would hardly call it intimate, either, with Plei just outside the door.

Again, that does not matter; what the people heard is that another woman came to your bedchamber when your wife was not at home. A proper husband would not have allowed her into the bedchamber, much less invited her to it.” His look was gentle, even as his words were firm. It reflects badly on Y’La as well for her to have allowed you to do such a thing. There are those who are saying that she lacks the strength to be a priestess if she will not control her own husband.”

She says to tell you that any who wishes to dispute her qualifications to be a priestess is welcome to approach her at any time and discuss the matter with her. They will not find her strength lacking.”

S’ru laughed. She is certainly Noma’s daughter,” he observed.