Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sunday Excerpt / Friday Fiction for October 29, 2017

This is posting late for Friday Fiction, so it’s kind of a combination of Friday Fiction and Sunday Excerpt. “The Historian Project” is likely going to be on hold for a little while, since NaNoWriMo begins this week, and my writing attention will be devoted to this year’s project, “Blue Fish, Red Fish.” If you’d like to participate, please add your link to the LinkyTool below.

My first NaNoWriMo was in 2006, and my project then was the third story in the Pod series, “The Daedalus Child,” about a young man with his arms engineered into functional wings. This still remains one of my favorite stories, and since Hallowe’en is this week, I thought this excerpt would be appropriate. It's a bit long for my excerpts, but I think the chapter is best shared in its entirety.

The Daedalus Child

Chapter 5

            Janice’s opinion of Park security changed over the remainder of the summer and into the fall.  She had expected them to tolerate her one dinner, but to resist any attempts for future visits with Bobby and Helen.  Instead, they smiled and made no notice of the growing friendship.  The number of evenings she could be found at the apartment, playing games or watching movies with the Malachs, became more frequent and just another part of the routine.

She sat with Helen one afternoon on her day off while Bobby was performing in the live-action show.  “Do you think he would enjoy getting out among regular people for an evening?”

            “I’m sure he would,” Helen said.  “Not that I think he would be allowed to, or that he’d be able to walk around unnoticed.”

            “I’ve thought about that, and I have an idea.”  She explained her thoughts, gratified to see that Helen’s smile indicated she liked the plan.

            A few weeks later, she waited for him in his apartment, watching the Park crowds through one of the small windows.

He returned in the late afternoon, commenting on how it seemed the Park got stranger every year for the Halloween season.  “At least it will be over tomorrow,” he said.  “They’ll start getting all the Christmas decorations in place, but the weird stuff will be done.”  He looked around.  “Where’s Grandma?”

            “She’s taking Kyle around trick-or-treating tonight.”

            He finally noticed her outfit.  “You’re in costume, too.  What are you wearing?”

            “It’s my Renaissance Faire dress; do you like it?”

            “It’s nice, but why are you wearing it?”

            “It’s Halloween, and you and I are going out to a movie.”  She pulled a long black hooded robe from a bag. 

            “Going out?  I thought the plan was to just watch movies here tonight.  They’re never going to allow this.”

            “They won’t even know,” she said.  “You’ll put this on; it has a skull mask to go over your face, so no one has to know who you are except me.”

            “But they’ll see us going out through the employee exits.”

            “And why would you need to go out through any exit?  It’s almost dark; all you need to do is fly out after sunset and meet me nearby.  No one is going to question me walking out by myself; you meet me, put the robe on, and we drive to a theater where no one is going to think anything strange of a couple in costume on Halloween night.”

            “Can we really get away with this?”

            “Why not?  You’re not going out as Daedalus, so what worry is there of your possibly doing anything to detract from the image of the character?  Tonight, you’re going out as Death, and it’s really hard to damage his reputation.” 

            He smiled as he warmed up to the idea.  “Okay; let me eat some dinner, and then I’ll take the elevator to the roof.  Where should I meet you?”

            “A friend of mine works at the hotel across the street.  She gave me a pass key that will let me get on the roof.  That will be a good place to meet with minimal chance of anyone seeing us, and also provide a good place for you to take off from to fly back here afterwards.”

            “This is crazy, but I like it.  I mean, a real theater; wow.”

            “With a 3-D movie, even,” she said, and smiled.  “I’ll see you across the street in a few minutes.  I’m sure it will take me longer to get there than it will take you.”

            She rode the elevator down and headed for the employee exit.  No one paid her much more mind than simple greetings, other than the normal check of her bag at the door to be sure she wasn’t taking anything out she shouldn’t.

            She pulled out of the parking lot onto the busy boulevard, and took longer to drive the short distance to the hotel than it would have taken her to walk it.  Parking in the visitor section, she proceeded to the elevator, where her key allowed her to select the roof.  She stood in the dark for a few minutes before Bobby dropped down beside her.

            “This is the first time I’ve been outside the Park without a handler since I signed that contract,” he said.  “Man, it feels good.”

            She took out the robe and helped him into it.  A full-length zipper closed it in front, and once she had the skull mask on his face, the hood went over the top of his head.  “Can you see through the mask all right?”

            “Just fine,” he said.

            They rode the elevator back to the ground floor, and blended in with everyone else in costume in the lobby.  It was tricky getting him into the car, considering the length of his arms, but with the seat reclined a bit and pulled all the way back, they managed.

            “Are you okay like that?” she asked, as they merged onto the freeway.

            “It feels strange riding like this, but I’m not uncomfortable.  Does my grandmother know about this?”

            “Who do you think helped me set all this up?  She made your robe, and that’s why she has Kyle tonight.”

            “Jan?  Is this a date?”

            “I suppose it is, if you want it to be.”

            “I’ve never been on a date before.”

            “Then, sure; it’s a date.  I haven’t been on one in a couple of years, either, and it would be a shame to let this year go by without both of us having one to remember.”

            With tickets already in hand, she led him past the line of other moviegoers, many of whom also wore costumes.  The only statement she heard in reference to the two of them was one person wishing they’d thought to buy their tickets in advance.

            They took seats in back of the theater, and when the reels started she slipped the mask from his face and put the 3-D glasses on him.  He made occasional appreciative comments on the effects, but other than that they watched the movie without conversation.

            She’d seen it before a number of times, and even in 3-D, but based on his reaction it was the first time he’d watched that movie.  His fascination with it renewed her own enjoyment of the show, to the point she thought the end credits appeared far too soon. 

            Removing the glasses from his face, she replaced the mask before the lights came up in the theater.  While the chance of someone recognizing him outside the context of the Park was slim, they both agreed it was better to not risk it.

            As it had been in the hotel lobby, the crowds in the theater paid them little notice, and more often than not when someone did look their way, they were gawking at her bosom, pushed up by the tight bodice she wore.  More than once, she caught his eyes straying to her bust.  She smiled.  Once in a while, it was nice to be admired for her appearance, and most of the time he gave scant indication that he thought much about how she looked.

            They got into the car, and she looked at the time on the dashboard clock.  “Are you ready to go home yet?”

            “Can I wait until the stroke of midnight and see if the car turns into a pumpkin first?”

            “Well, I have to work tomorrow, so I really can’t be out that late.  We could stop and get a milkshake, though.”

            “I’d like that.” 

            She searched for and found a certain fast-food place, and pulled into the drive-through lane.  “Two pumpkin pie shakes,” she ordered, and proceeded to the pick-up window.  She placed the shakes in the cup holders, and headed down the freeway once again.  When she selected an off ramp, it was to park at the beach.

            They sat in the front seats with the windows rolled down, shivering slightly from the cool ocean breeze and the cold milkshakes they were drinking.

            “You know, the first time I ever saw the ocean was from a helicopter?” he said.  “That same day was the first time I ever went swimming.”

            “It’s hard to picture you swimming.”

            “It’s hard to say no to Brenda.  She was pretty persuasive at getting me into the water.”  He lifted the milkshake to his face, holding the cup between the heels of his thumbs.  He drew in a large mouthful through the straw, savored it for a moment, and swallowed.  “She convinced me to dance with her, too.  If you have a hard time picturing me swimming, imagine me dancing in the water with a merrow.”

            “A merrow?”

            “It’s what the Pod call themselves, instead of mermaids and mermen.  Brenda is one of them, and she was the one that told me I should get an agent and try to make a living off my wings.”

            “You sound like you have a girlfriend; are you sure you’ve never been on a date before?”

            “I don’t think she qualifies as a girlfriend.  We write to each other a lot, but we’ve never even so much as hinted at a romantic relationship.  She was the first girl about my age that I ever talked to, though, and it was nice that she understood what it was like to have been engineered to be so different.”

            “She sounds nice.”

            “She’s a lot of fun, and around her was the first time in my life that someone besides my grandmother and Tina made me feel like I wasn’t some hideous monster.  From the moment the Pod saw me, they just accepted me for who I am.”

            “I can’t imagine why anyone would think of you as a monster.”

            “Listen to that preacher, Rusty Phillips.  He thinks I’m some kind of demon-spawn.”

            “Phillips is a lunatic; don’t pay any attention to him.”

            “He may be a lunatic, but he does have a point.  Admit it, Jan; if I’d put on red body-paint tonight and a pair of horns, I would have looked perfect as a devil.  Angels are drawn with gorgeous white-feathered wings, while demons have fleshy, bat-like wings.  People who buy into the traditional imagery are going to think I look evil.”

            “How do they know angels don’t have bat-wings?  Who’s to say what an angel’s wings look like?”

            “You don’t have to convince me; I don’t see something evil when I look in the mirror.”

            “I don’t see something evil when I look at you, either,” she said, and then laughed.  “Though in that black cloak and skull mask, you don’t exactly look benevolent, either.”

            “Maybe not, but you were right; it worked.  No one gave me anything more than a passing glance tonight.  For the first time in my life, I’ve been out among regular people and I didn’t have to worry about what they might think of me, or if I’m going to terrify someone.”

            She checked the time.  “We better get back; it’s going to be hard enough getting up in the morning as it is.”

            They drove back to the hotel, exchanging small talk.  The lobby was mostly deserted when they entered, and the desk clerk looked up just enough to register their presence before going back to whatever he was doing on his computer.  She used the key in the elevator again, and they stepped out into the cool night air on the rooftop.

            “I had a great time this evening, Jan; thank you.”

            “I had fun, too.  It’s too bad Halloween only comes once a year.”  She flipped the hood back from his head, and unzipped the front of the cloak.  “You won’t have any problem finding your landing spot in the dark?”

            “I’ve done night-flights before when I’ve had problems getting to sleep.  I can find my rooftop without any trouble at all.”

            “I’ll be over to pick Kyle up in a few minutes, so I’ll see you at your apartment then.”

            “Is the date over now?”

            “I’m afraid so, Bobby.”

            He sighed, and started to turn away.

            “Well, except for one thing,” she said, touching him on the shoulder.  She turned him back to face her and slipped a hand behind his head.  Giving him a quick kiss, she looked into his eyes with a smile.  “You know, you’re supposed to kiss back when someone kisses you.”

            He hesitated, and then brought his lips to meet hers, wrapping his wings around her body.  His kiss was tentative and unsure.  “I really don’t know what I’m doing,” he whispered.

            “It’s okay,” she said.  “You’re doing fine.” She kissed him again, putting more feeling into the gesture.  When she drew back, she said, “Now the date is over.”

            He smiled and drew his arms away from her.  “I hope we can do this again sometime.”

            “I do, too.”

            He went to the edge and stretched his wings a few times.  Crouching down first, he leapt off into the dark.

            She returned to her car, and sat in the parking lot for a few moments, sorting through her thoughts.  The kiss had never been part of the plan.  They were supposed to just go out to a movie, maybe get something to drink, and then come home.  The beach; the kiss; she’d made it into a real date.

            She turned on the lighted visor mirror and looked at herself.  “Is that really what you wanted all along, Jan?  Did you just convince yourself you were doing something nice for him, when all along you wanted to remember what it was like when a guy wanted to go out with you just for you?”

            Someone had warned her when she was pregnant with Kyle; having kids changes things.  People treat you differently.  She hadn’t wanted to believe them, but learned all too soon the truth of it.  So many guys that were charming and wonderful ran like scared rabbits the moment she uttered the words, “my son”.

            Not Bobby, though.  He’d included Kyle in his first invitation to her.  He was crazy about the boy and enjoyed hanging out with him.  A small voice echoed in her mind.  Don’t fall for a guy just to get a daddy for Kyle.

            Why did life have to be so confusing?

Friday, October 20, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 20, 2017

Friday Fiction this week is hosted by the talented and imaginative Sara Harricharan, over on her blog. If you haven’t been over there yet to read her story, make sure you don’t miss it!

This week is the third part of “The Historian Project.” I’m not sure how long this story will end up being, but I’m enjoying where it’s going so far.

The Historian Project, Part 3

By Rick Higginson

            “No, the red compact should be my brother Sid.” Manziel walked to the window and looked out. “Funny – even at this speed, he still seems to move slower than most people. Sid was never much of a go-getter. I think he’s spent more time on unemployment than he has being employed. If I remember right, this was his first – and last – year of college, after goofing-off for two years after high school. Mom and Dad told him if he didn’t improve his class attendance and grades, they were not going to pay his college expenses any longer, and he dropped out shortly thereafter.”

            “Then I think we can maintain this review rate a while longer.”

            The two men continued to watch out the window, and before long snow began to fall. At the accelerated review rate, it looked much like a torrential rainfall, only boldly white.

            “I shouldn’t be much longer now. I seem to remember something when I arrived home that year, Mom said it’d only been snowing for an hour or so.”

            The door to the bedroom opened and closed, the sound like a firecracker pop at the accelerated rate. Manziel’s face twisted in confusion. “What’s Sid doing in here?”

            Kallas looked at the arrival impassively. “System, normal rate. Let’s watch, shall we?”

            Sid had already moved to the dresser before the system restored the rate to normal. He opened the drawers slowly, then quietly moved about the clothes in each.

            Kallas walked over next to him, and peered into the latest drawer. “Any idea what he might be looking for, Dr. Manziel?”

            “Are you sure he can’t hear us?”

            “If he could hear us, then he could also see us, and if that were the case, I doubt he would be searching your room.”

            “No idea.”

            Sid went next to the desk and pulled open the drawers, followed by the closet, looking in boxes on both the shelf and the floor, and then checking coat pockets and the dress coat. Still not finding what he was searching for, he dropped to his knees and looked under the bed, then ran his hand between the mattress and box springs.

            He stood suddenly and hurried to the window. He muttered an expletive, and then left the room.

            “Can you contact your brother?”

            “Yeah, I have his number. He calls from time to time when he needs something.”

            “Whether we determine what happened to your grandfather’s watch, you can ask your brother about this search, and see what he says.”

            He snorted. “I wouldn’t bet on him admitting it, even if he remembers it. He has a notoriously bad memory for anything negative in his past.” Manziel went to the window. “Ah, that’s why he cut his search short. I just got home.”

            “Would you prefer to wait for yourself up here, or go relive the homecoming downstairs?”

            He thought a moment. “Up here. I think I’m already closing up on nostalgia overload.”

            It was only a few minutes before the door opened again, and the younger version of Dr. Manziel walked in. He dropped a heavily-packed duffle bag on the bed, kicked off his shoes, and flopped on his back beside the bag.

            “Damn, I never realized how much I looked like a kid back then.”

            His younger self remained on the bed for only a few minutes, before getting up. He removed the items from his pockets, including an antique pocket watch, and set them atop the dresser, before changing from his traveling clothes into clean jeans and a long-sleeved t-shirt. He replaced all the items into his pockets, save for the watch, which he placed in his top dresser drawer.

            “That was the last time I remember seeing the watch. I still don’t remember whether I took it with me back to college, and lost it there, or forgot it in the drawer, and something happened to it while I was gone.”

            “Then we watch the drawer, and see what happens from here. Do you need a break, Dr. Manziel? We can have the system ‘bookmark’ this point in history, so that we can return to it later.”

            “How long have we been in here now? I mean, even at the accelerated rate, it has to have been some time, hasn’t it?”

            “System, real time passage of this session?”

            The same voice from the control room sounded inside the bedroom. “Session duration currently thirty-four minutes, thirty seconds.”

            Manziel shook his head. “It seems it should have been longer than that. I mean, even at thirty times faster than the normal time passage, we got here at noon, and it’s now almost evening.”

            “At thirty times passage, five hours pass in ten minutes. We spent longer watching your brother search your room, than we spent waiting for him to arrive.”

            “Can we set a time limit we are here?”

            “Of course.”

            “Okay, we’ll call this session at one hour of real time. We can accelerate again to watch the drawer, right?”

            Kallas didn’t answer. “System, notify us when our session is approaching one hour of duration.”


            “System, fast forward at thirty ex.”

            The room grew dark as night fell. The younger Manziel came in once and grabbed a coat, before leaving the room in darkness again.

            “I remember now, I went out to see some of my friends that night.”

            He had barely finished saying that, when the door opened again. Sid came in, leaving the light off and closing the door quickly.

            “System, normal rate.”

He went to the window and pulled the curtains open, allowing the streetlight to add a faint glow to the room, before opening the desk drawer again. He then returned to the dresser and pulled open the top drawer. As before, he shuffled things around, and then suddenly pulled his hand up, smiling. The pocket watch dangled from its chain, catching the scant light in the room as it swung and spun, before Sid stuffed it into one of his pockets.

            “Sid took it? Why would he take it? He’d never expressed any interest in it when our grandfather was alive.”

            “System, return to control room.”

            The scene faded to the plain blue of the control room.

            “Do you understand, now, Dr. Manziel, the value of the Historian System?”

            “This is still so hard to believe.”

            Kallas sighed. “Call your brother tonight and ask him about the watch. You should return tomorrow for another session, after which, I believe, you will understand the true difficulty of the Historian Program.”

…to be continued…

Friday, October 13, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 13th, 2017

The return of Friday Fiction is starting out slow so far, so I’m hosting again this week. Hopefully, we’ll get more participants soon, as a number of friends expressed an interest in it. As was the case last week, if you would like to participate, add your link to the Linkytool below.

This week brings Part 2 of the Historian Project, and how the system works. If you’re coming to this story for the first time, you’ll probably want to click over to Part 1 first. For those returning, the quick recap is that Dr. Manziel, the new President of the University, has visited Professor Kallas’ Historian Witness 101 class and challenged the attrition rate of the Historian Program. Kallas, in explaining why the program continues despite a high drop-out rate, has invited Manziel to experience the Historian Project first-hand, and as this part opens, they are now in the system.

The Historian Project, Part 2

By Rick Higginson

Manziel spun around. “This is the control center? There’s nothing here.”

            “We have everything we need for this journey.”

            “All right. I’ll play along. Where are we going on this ‘journey’?”

            “To start, that is up to you. Tell me, Dr. Manziel, is there something you have lost that you would like to know what happened to it?”

            He thought a moment. “My grandfather, shortly before he died, gave me his grandfather’s pocket watch. I lost it maybe two months later, and have always wondered where it went.”

            “Tell me when and where you last remember having it.”

            He closed his eyes and scratched his head. “Oh, man, that was, like, twenty three years ago. My grandfather died during my first year in college, and the last I remember having the watch was when I came home for Winter Break that year.”

            “So, let’s start with December twentieth, twenty-three years ago. System, calculate and lock date, with local time of twelve noon.”

            A voice sounded in the room. “Target confirmed and locked.”

            “Where was your home at that time?”

            Manziel chuckled. “Funny how I’ve forgotten more important things, but I still remember that address. 7129 West Lincoln Ave, Cantor, New York.”

            “System, calculate and lock location.”

            “Target confirmed and locked.”

            “Initiate placement.”

            The room shimmered for perhaps a second, and was replaced by a street scene. They stood on the sidewalk in front of a modest two story house. A blanket of snow covered the area, and the overcast sky threatened to add more to the winter scene.

            Manziel’s eyes went wide. “Holy – that’s my parents’ house! And, geez, it’s cold! I’ve never experienced a simulator with this much detail.”

            “Let’s go inside, shall we?”

            “So, do we prompt the system to move?”

            Kallas took a step forward. “No, we walk.” He reached the door, and waited for Manziel.

            Dr. Manziel stepped onto the porch, and tried to open the door. His hand passed through the knob as if it wasn’t there.

            “One of the aspects of the Historian System is that we cannot touch anything. The feel of the ground beneath our feet is merely illusory for the sake of natural movement, but to enter, the door is just as solid as the doorknob seemed.” He walked through the closed door to the entryway, and waited for Manziel to follow.

            “That’s – got to be the weirdest sensation I’ve experienced in a long time.” He took a deep breath and released it slowly. “Man, I’ve missed this place.”

            “Now, where in this house did you last see the watch?”

            “In my bedroom, upstairs.” He walked confidently through the living room to the stairway, and then up to the top floor. He turned right at the top of the stairs towards the room at the end of the hall.

            The bathroom door opened, and a woman walked out, wearing nothing but a towel wrapped around her wet hair.

            Kallas watched her pass. “I would say you either are not home right now, or else your family has a very relaxed attitude concerning familial nudity.”

            Manziel sputtered. “That wasn’t funny. Depicting my mother naked like that is a rather sick idea of a joke.”

            “That was your mother? Dr. Manziel, I promise you, I have no control over what we shall see, hear, and otherwise experience while we are here. For whatever reason, on this date twenty-three years ago, your mother did not bother to cover up walking from the bathroom back to what I assume is her bedroom.”

            “How could the simulator know that happened? It couldn’t have read it from my mind through the neural interface, because I didn’t see it happen back then.”

            “We are not in a simulation. This is your parents’ home, twenty-three years ago. Much like Scrooge with the Ghost of Christmas Past, we are visiting here like ghosts, unseen and incapable of interfacing with the world around us, but we are here.

            “You’re saying this system is a time machine? That’s not possible.”

            “We have not broken the technology yet to transfer a physical body back in time, but what we have developed is a system that is capable of capturing and decoding the, for lack of a better term, reverberations of time past. As the Ghost said to Scrooge, ‘these are but shadows of the things that have been.’ Like reviewing the video from a security camera, we can see and examine past events, with the added element of being able to move freely through the scene, seeing it from any angle we wish.”

            “No, I still cannot believe it’s possible.”

            “That is why we are here, watching for your lost item, Dr. Manziel.  When you see what happened to the watch, you can then verify for yourself that what we see here is actually history. You need to know that what I am telling you is true, so that you completely understand the real value of this program.” He walked to the door at the end of the hall. “This is your room, correct? Unless, of course, you wish to follow your mother and make sure she gets dressed.”

            “You’re a bit twisted for even suggesting that, you know that?”

            “Your mother’s state of undress, and anything else she may or may not do while we are here, is merely information to me, of the same weight as the fact these walls are painted a pale green. One of the goals of the Historian Program is to train students how to remain completely objective in their observations of history. It is our aim to witness and record events, without adding a bias of approval or disapproval. Whether I agree with what someone has done does not change what they did, and we have more than enough historical accounts prejudiced by the opinions of the recorders.” He passed through the closed door into the room.

            The bed was neatly made, and while the room appeared decorated for a young adult male, the desktop was bare, and the room lacked any form of clutter that might suggest it had been recently occupied.

            Manziel entered the room and took it in. His eyes locked on the poster of a long out-of-vogue singer. “I’d forgotten all about her. I had a serious crush on her during my Senior year in High School.”

            “Judging from the state of this room, I would guess you have not arrived home yet for your break.”

            “So, what do we do now? Try a new target date?”

            “No, we remain here and watch for your arrival.”

            “That could be hours, or maybe days. I don’t remember exactly when I got home that year.”

            “System, fast-forward at thirty ex.”

            “We can do that?”

            “Of course. Since the system is essentially playing back events it has recorded from the historical reverberations, we can move forward or backward at whim. This is valuable in that it enables us to search for the exact moment we need, but we can also back up, move to a different location, and witness the same event from another perspective. We should now be passing an hour’s worth of history in two minutes. That’s fast enough that the waiting is not tedious, but still slow enough to spot the moment when you arrive.” He stood by the window, staring out at the street.

            Manziel wandered the room, remaining quiet for a while. He finally stopped in front of the poster, examining it. “Looking at her now, I can’t imagine why I was so infatuated with her.” He turned towards the window. “So, if this technology is so incredible, why haven’t I heard of it before?”

            Kallas kept his gaze directed outward. “The Historian Project isn’t strictly a secret, but we also don’t want it widely known. If the general populace knew we had this capability, it could cause problems, not the least of which would be an overwhelming increase in the requests for our service. We would have people wanting us to help them find lost pets, or trying to use as a private investigator to spy on a cheating spouse, or just wanting to use the system for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.”

            “Would that last be such a terrible thing?”

            He released a staccato laugh. “I already told you that history is brutal. It’s not just brutal in the violence that was done; it’s also brutal in its honesty. What has happened, has happened regardless of whether one approves or disapproves. Think about it, Dr. Manziel. You accused me of a sick prank because your mother walked naked from one room to another, so what would your reaction have been if we had instead found her intimately involved with someone you did not know? If we take someone to a special family gathering in the past, what if they find it different than their memory prefers it? What if, in our ability to move freely through the past and the scene, they overhear something that ruins that memory for them?”

            “What if they find that some disappointment to them had a good reason behind it, and it improves their memory?”

            “One of the first things we stress in the Historian Program curriculum is that people are human. As such, they are also unpredictable in their reactions. Even if I pose a hypothetical scenario to someone, and ask how they would react, it doesn’t mean they will actually react that way if faced with that scenario in reality. No, Dr. Manziel, most people are better left with their imperfect memories, than risking how they might react if they revisited the scene later in life.” He nodded towards the driveway. “If you drove a red compact car, then I believe you have arrived.”
to be continued...

Friday, October 6, 2017

Friday Fiction for October 6, 2017

Welcome to the restart of Friday Fiction. I have the privilege of hosting this week, so be sure to enter the link to your story in the Linkytool below, and visit the other stories posted for this week. Please feel free to comment as well. We love feedback!

This week’s submission is the first part of a short story I’ve been working on lately, and my plan is to post subsequent parts in the coming weeks. This is a concept I’ve been thinking about for a while, and finally decided on how I wanted to approach it. I hope you enjoy it.

The Historian Project

By Rick Higginson

            Professor Kallas watched the students file from the lecture hall. Not bad for the first session of the new term. Only three of the fifty students failed to show. He powered down the computer and large display screen behind the lectern, and then placed his tablet in his briefcase.

            One man remained seated at the back of the hall. Kallas regarded him for a moment. One of my missing students? “Do you have a question for me, Mr. ah?”

            The man stood. “Actually it’s Doctor Manziel.”

            “Ah, yes. The new President of this fine institution. To what do I owe the pleasure of this visit, Dr. Manziel?”

            Dr. Manziel stepped into the aisle and strode down the stairs. “I don’t know that pleasure is quite the word I’d use for this visit. I’ve been reviewing the records on your history department, and it seems your program here has, by far, the largest dropout rate of any program at this university.”

            He chuckled. “I am well aware of the attrition rate in my department, Dr. Manziel. Believe it or not, this is, by a wide margin, the most difficult program in this, or any other, university.”

            Manziel scowled. “It’s history, for pity’s sake. We teach medicine here. We teach quantum physics here. We teach law here. You cannot tell me that history is more academically challenging than those curricula.”

            Kallas leaned against the lectern. “I did not say this program is the most academically challenging. I said it was the most difficult. There are many other factors of difficulty than just academics.” He gestured with one hand to indicate the hall. “You saw the forty-seven first-year students that were just here. This was the first session of Histwit 101, and before the start of their second year here, half of them will have changed their major, if not changed schools entirely. I expect this. It’s part of the program. Half of those remaining will not return for the third year, and by the end of the fourth year, of the original fifty signed up, I may have five left.”

            “It’s part of your program to lose half your students in your first year? Professor Kallas, that is simply unacceptable. I don’t know how you’ve managed to avoid scrutiny through the term of my  predecessor, but I take my responsibilities to the Board of Regents quite seriously. Any program where only ten percent of the starting class completes the standard four year program either needs to be completely overhauled, or scrapped from the catalog. How that hasn’t already happened to your history program is beyond my comprehension.”

            “I assume, then, you have not reviewed the financial records yet. One of the biggest reasons my program is still active, is my work brings in better than eighty percent of the donations to this university.”

            “That’s ridiculous. How would a history program motivate that level of donation income?”

            Kallas laughed, bending over and placing his hands on his knees.”Dr. Manziel, really! You have not done your homework at all, have you? It is not the Historian Program that generates income for this university. It is the Historian Project that is this institution’s goose that lays the golden eggs, and it is also the very reason the program has such a high withdrawal rate.”

            “I don’t understand on either count.”

            “How early in this class session did you arrive?”

            “Towards the end.”

            “Ah, then you missed the important points. Candidates for the Historian Program are carefully selected, but even then, few people are actually suited for the program. The reason I am able to run both the program and the project is that I suffered a head injury when I was fourteen years old. The lasting effect of this injury was a nearly complete loss of empathy in my mind. I am incapable of feeling any sort of sympathetic pain for other living creatures, human or otherwise. Because the injury occurred in my teens, I had already developed sufficient morality that I did not turn into a criminal sociopath. I can recognize an act of violence as wrong, but I cannot feel the same discomfort that a normal person feels.”

            “So you don’t feel any regrets over the students that do not make it in your program, either?”

            “I consider them fortunate, because they are still capable of being moved by their empathy. History, Dr. Manziel, has traditionally been written by the winners, as the saying goes. What we have learned through most of human civilization has been a sanitized, biased view of events. The defeated enemy was evil and had to be subdued, and the methods used were those necessary and reasonable. The reality, however, is that history is brutal, and when we see events as they actually happened, history is revealed as often horrific. If a student cannot handle that, they are better off seeking a different program more suitable to their temperament.”

            “It’s still just history. It’s over and done.”

            “That’s the problem. You see, students studying medicine, for example, do so with the hope that what they learn can be used to help the patients they will eventually treat. The same is true with law. An attorney works to see that their clients’ rights are not violated, and that they are afforded every protection of the law, rather than being oppressed by the system. The historian cannot help their subjects. What has happened is already done, and cannot be undone. The suffering is real, and those who cannot put their empathy aside will be overwhelmed by it.”

            “So you study ancient texts or archaeological sites. I can’t believe that many people are that sensitive as to be overwhelmed by such things.”

            “I think, perhaps, it is time I introduced you to the Historian Project. If you will follow me, Dr. Manziel.”

            Manziel huffed. “Is this going to take much time? You do know that my schedule is very demanding.”

            “You question my program; you need to know the answers, because, I promise you, if you go to the Board of Regents and try to cut this department, they will either override your decision or replace you.” He did not wait for any reply before heading to a door at the back of the hall. He scanned his ID, typed in a number, and then pressed his left ring finger against a pad.

            “That’s an odd finger to use for a print check.” Manziel stepped through the door as Kallas held it open.

            “It’s randomized. The system may request any of the ten fingers, or it may request a retinal scan, or a combination of both. It’s designed to make it more difficult to defeat the security system.”

            “Geez, are you going to tell me that you work for the CIA?”

            “We have, on occasion, done work for different intelligence agencies. Information is the most valuable commodity in the world, and information is what the Historian Project collects. You want to know where someone hid a valuable artifact? We can find out. Need to find where a ship sank? We can tell you. If something has happened in history, whether it is recent or ancient, we can find out exactly what happened. We can solve a murder that happened a thousand years ago.” He performed the security steps on another door and opened it. The lights came on to reveal a large console with six recliners arrayed on one side. Kallas went to one recliner and gestured. “Have a seat, Dr. Manziel, and I will get you hooked up.”

            Manziel gave the recliner the once-over, but did not sit down. “Hooked up?”

            “The Historian System utilizes a neural interface for its users. It’s completely safe, I assure you.”

            He settled into the chair. “Neural interface? Like some kind of virtual reality?”

            “Sort of. The interface technology is based on that developed for the virtual reality market.”

            Kallas slipped a soft hood over Manziels head, covering his eyes and ears. “It will first calibrate to your particular neural signature, and once it has, you will see me in the system in the control center.” He took a seat in his own chair and donned his hood.

            For Kallas, the effect was immediate. He stood in a bare room, illuminated with pale blue light. I’m usually waiting for five people to arrive, not just one. A minute later, Manziel appeared. “Welcome to the Historian Project, Dr. Manziel.”

…to be continued.