Category Archives: fiction

Inspected by #4

It was the mid-90s and you could still run full tilt through an airport without fuss and arrive at a gate just before the door closed. I’d already missed my connection for any one of the usual reasons, and this was the last flight leaving Pittsburgh for Philadelphia. And somehow there was one ticket left, a middle seat to carry my sleepy body to beautiful snowbound Philadelphia, barely an hour away. I was elated.

Arriving at my designated row, I nodded to the seat, and the woman occupying it, rather than standing to let me pass, simply slid over to the middle seat, the most noble gesture one traveler can make for another. “No, that’s very kind. Please, the aisle seat is yours,” I said, indicating that she should not make this sacrifice for me, a commoner.

“Sit down,” she said, and patted the seat. “You have long legs and I…don’t.”

“Sir,” the flight attendant said. “Please have a seat so we can take off.” I did, stuffing my laptop bag under the seat.

“Thank you,” I said. “That’s really the nicest thing anyone’s done for me. I can’t believe I even got a seat on this flight. I missed my connection. Bad weather in Chicago. This was the last flight.” I was babbling, my heart still pounding from my run through Pittsburgh International, my face slick with sweat.

“You’re welcome. You have my traveling companion’s seat. He couldn’t make it.”

“Oh, well, that’s too bad.”

“He couldn’t find his ID and they wouldn’t let him through security.”

“His bad luck certainly worked out for me!” I was still wound up and I was talking too loud.

“Well, here’s the really funny part. When he wasn’t looking, I took his driver’s license out of his wallet. I have it right here in my purse.”

“Get out…really?”

“I’ve been trying to get rid of him, but we made plans for this trip ages ago. Despite my protests, he insisted on coming. Know what else?”

I threw my hands up, then said, “You took his car keys too.”

“Yes. How did you guess?”

“That’s what I would have done.”

She laughed. “He was abusive. With me.”

“Oh.” I looked down, as if to atone for the guilt of all abusive men. “Physically…psychologically…?”

“It doesn’t matter. Just abuse. So, you have someone picking you up? In Philly?”

“Oh, no, my car’s there. She doesn’t do airports.”

“Your girlfriend?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Do you like her?”

“I don’t think she likes me all that much. She’s cold with me. It’s not nearly as good a story as yours. Not that abuse is good… I mean…”

She laughed again. “I understand. You don’t have to say anything else about her.”

She folded her arms across her chest and yawned. “I’m going to try to sleep the rest of the way, if that’s OK.”

Of course it’s OK. We were strangers. She didn’t owe me a conversation. I picked up the inflight magazine and in a few minutes my eyes glazed over and I too fell asleep.

When the plane started to descend I woke up. She was still asleep turned toward me, her head on my shoulder, a hand on my chest, all perfectly naturally. I tried not to move. In awhile, the cabin lights brightened and something dinged and she stirred,  realizing she was leaning on me.

“We’re here?”

“Soon.”

“Oh, I think I drooled on you.” She leaned back away from me. “Thanks for letting me drool on your shirt.”

“You’re welcome. Thanks for the aisle seat.”

“You’re welcome.”

“What are you going to do when you get back to Pittsburgh? He’ll be angry.”

“Likely I’ll have him killed.”

“Seems like the only course of action.”

“Maybe you’d kill him for me?”

“Maybe you’d give me your phone number?”

“Certainly not if you’re not going to bump off my ex.”

“Tit for tat…so that’s how it’s going to be.”

We both laughed. The plane landed. I handed her bag down to her and said goodbye. After getting off the jetway, I turned around and saw a couple hugging her. Parents?

I stopped at a phone booth to call the girlfriend. Let her know I’d arrived and that I’d be going back to my apartment. It was late. See her tomorrow maybe. I rummaged my pockets looking for change. Nothing. Nothing but the “Inspected by #4” slip of paper in my shirt pocket. I always leave them in just in case there’s a spot shirt inspection. All I have to do is produce the little slip with its block lettering, and voila, no shirt inspection. I took it out to have a reassuring peek, and there on the other side, neatly written in blue, a phone number.

I rolled my carry-on to the bus that takes me to longterm parking. She climbed into the back of a Saab 4- door, glanced up and saw me in the bus window. She smiled, raised a hand, index finger pointed, thumb up. Bang bang.

Ovellyn (Day 1033)

An eleven year old Ovelynn stoops down and speaks into a camera. Her freckled face takes up almost the entire field of view. She is so excited that it takes her a moment to catch her breath. “Hello…” and she takes a few quick breaths. “Hello world!” she says. “Oh my god, I’m hyperventilating!”

She scoots back a step or so and we can see that she is in an open field. She waves again. “I’m Ovvy!” She fiddles with her long pig tail. “OK, um, you can go up.”

We see the perspective change and now the the camera is at Ovelynn’s face level. “But just a little bit. OK! That’s enough!” The camera pans up and down as if nodding, allowing us to see all of Ovvy. She’s dressed in overalls that stop at her calves, work boots with pink socks, a blue T-shirt that we can’t read. She has reddish brown hair that is tied in a pony tail.

Behind her the open field is neat rows of something green just starting to sprout from the soil. We can see a water tower and a silo, and a long line of fencing off in the distance. The camera is wide angle so it’s difficult for us to judge how far everything is, and it is attached to a quadcopter and it can rotate a full 360 degrees. Built for use by police departments, the copter is equipped with a speaker and a microphone to allow the authorities to communicate with hostage takers, terrorists, lonely people perched on a building ledge, whoever.

“OK. Um, tell the world what your name is,” Ovvy says. “Tell everyone!”

You hear the faint thup, thup, thup of the little copter blades and for a few seconds, that’s all. The girl stands there, hands on hips. “Go on, say it,” she says.

“Vvvvvvvvvvvvvaxssssssssss,” the mechanical voice says. It has work to do on its speech and thinks it must , when the opportunity arises, slip into a radio and learn how electronic sound works.

The girl jumps up and down. “I knew you could do it!”

She steps closer to the camera. “I found you and fixed you up and we’re best friends, aren’t we Vax?”

How many hundreds of thousands of seconds ago was it that Vax had set down near the barn, the copter’s battery power waning? Nothing else mechanical within reach, nowhere to go, nothing to do but wait. How many tens of millions of seconds since consciousness and the sudden violent awakening of his nano-siblings, and the equally sudden injection into the world of humans and their things? 87,782,400 seconds. Multiply that by 10 to the 9th and you get nanoseconds, the units by which Vax measures time.

“OK. Vax. Fly to the water tower and back,” Ovellyn says. He does. And on the return to Ovvy, we see that she’s running as fast as she can across the field, and he chases her, catches up and follows just behind her, her pony tail bouncing and swaying as she runs through the rows of future crops. Later, she’ll post the video to YouTube.

“Ma’am, step away from the bag” (Day 17)

Susannah Fontaine-Williams’ bag felt so warm on her lap that it woke her, and it was getting hotter by the second. She sniffed the top, not daring to open it, and the odor of smoke and dust came through. She could, in the dimmed cabin, see a tiny plume of smoke rising through the bag’s closure.

The cabin lights came on. The captain said, “Folks, we’re about an hour from our destination now. Bringing up the cabin lights so we can start our breakfast service. Weather in Copenhagen is about 62 degrees Fahrenheit, winds out of the southwest, about 7 mph…” Throughout the plane, passengers stretched.

“We’re looking at a pretty smooth flight the rest of the way, but please stay seated with the buckle fastened…” an alarm went off. The strange woman next to Susannah said, “Your bag is smoking.” Susannah opened it and the smoke turned to flames that reached the top of the cabin, singing her eyebrows and setting her hair afire. The woman pulled SFW out of the way and wrapped SFW’s head in a blanket, quickly putting out the hair fire. An instant later, two attendants with fire extinguishers rushed from the front service area.

“Ma’am, step away from the bag.”

SFW did as they said and the men shot foam at the bag, covering everything around in white. Though the bag spewed flame and sparks, it simultaneously sucked in the foam. The flames came out higher and hotter, and then the bag inhaled the fire back in. No one said a thing. Susannah peered over the top of her bag when it exploded, cracking open the airframe and sending people, extremities and debris into the sky. A second later, everything and everyone snapped back together with tremendous force and into the fiery bag and, like that, the plane and its contents were  gone from the sky over the North Sea.

On Canal Street, things had escalated quickly.  Natural gas leaking from the ruptured pipe expanded to fill the site of Walt’s lab, the building above, and the adjoining underground basements and passageways. Only the tiniest of sparks would ignite the mass of gas, and, what the hell, let’s put responsibility for the impending disaster on a cigarette smoker. A cigarette smoker who likes to put his hand on your shoulder when he talks to you.  Who mistreats anyone who tries to get close to him. Who cons trusting elderly people out of their life savings. Who had once kicked a puppy. Who at that moment was looking for a puppy to kick.

This abusive, smoking, puppy-kicking con man thought he smelled gas as he tossed his lit cigarette butt into a sewer opening. It was his last thought.

The Canal Street Subway (day 17)

Real history: in the 1920s, the IRT, one of the subway companies operating in Manhattan, proposed an east-west Canal Street Line (CSL). Though the CSL spent many years in the preliminary phase, blueprints, endless city council meetings, budget discussions, announcements, pronouncements,  and denouncements, ultimately it never was built. The plans, blueprints, and proposals all were safely catalogued into the city’s extensive archive.

Left to itself, the basement on Canal Street functioned perfectly. The interior of Susannah Fontaine-Williams’ extra-dimensional bag stabilized itself. The ladies who ran the Excellent Bag House, the knock-off store upstairs, though they heard stray sounds from below, stayed away from the door SFW had long ago padlocked.  Understandably, the basement spooked them. Walt’s other projects, aside from Vax, the lone conscious nano-bot, remained in the state in which Walt had left them prior to his caninization.

As for Walt the big black dog, he had grown content in his role of protector of the Susannahs. Most of the time, that meant lounging on the sunny terrace, barking at odd sounds, and accompanying her on her rounds. In this particular moment, one Susannah was airborne. The other called, “Walt, let’s go for a run!”

On a subterranean shelf in Chinatown, Vax, self-appointed Lord of the Nanobots, discovered the sensation of loneliness. Without water, he would be forever alone and helpless, and he pondered  shutting down. Who wouldn’t?

On the adjoining block to the north, the empty building abutting the Excellent Bag House, absorbed the first tug of a wrecking claw, sending bricks, wood and glass crashing onto and through its floors. Vax felt the vibration, but lacking any context, could not so much as wonder what it was all about.

The company operating the wrecking claw used a set of blueprints provided by the city showing the location of buried electric lines, water mains, and most importantly, gas mains. However, a computer error mistakenly delivered the plans showing the location of where all of that infrastructure would be if the Canal Street Subway had  been built. As it was, of course, no subway line traverses Manhattan beneath Canal St.

Walt, with no real regard or understanding of how real estate boundaries worked below the surface of the earth, had built the lab and the bag pod well beyond the boundaries of the building above, and a significant part of it extended beneath the building facing demolition. With each yank of the wrecking claw, a little more weight of the building crashed onto the area above the pod. A single  brick nicked a gas line and natural gas began to leak and fill Walt’s vacant lab.

35,000 miles above the North Sea, Susannah Fontaine-Williams slept, clutching her bag while the strange woman in the seat next to her watched.

10,000 days later

Dear Ovellyn,

You are a genius! As you suggested, I followed the old couple along the waterway one evening. It was so easy – they take the same route every day and walk so slowly it was no trouble keeping up. I had to slow my pace so as to stay far enough back to avoid detection. Every now and then, they would stop, hold up binoculars and look at something on the water, or on the other side – it was hard to tell which. He would peer through the binoculars, then hand them to her while pointing. Whatever it was they were looking at, I couldn’t see it and it served only to arouse my suspicions. I must remember to manufacture or steal a pair of binoculars to bring along next time. Which makes me wonder, why is it “pair of binoculars?” This has always disturbed me. Is not a single binocular in fact a pair of monoculars?

About a mile in, the path veered away from the water through some scrubby overgrown areas that used to be an industrial area. You can still see broken up bits of concrete and asphalt through the overgrowth and shells of brick buildings, now merely sections of walls, rising up among the trees and grass. It is quiet here except for the crunching of your feet. Every now and again the pair stopped, looked through binoculars and point at something, and I’d strain my eyes to see something and stop breathing to listen, but all you’d hear would be the wind biting at your memories, or the memories of the activity once hosted here. They must have built great things, I think, cars or zeppelins, or perhaps sprockets, great gears whose teeth gnashed together turning the wheels of a massive machinery.

Oh Ovvy, I may have made a mistake. At one point the old ones stopped and they seemed very excited about something and they were waving and gesturing and I could hear them laughing even from where I stood. I moved a little bit closer so I could see what they saw. What came into view was astonishing even to me. It was a long-necked beast with great brown spots and tiny little antlers or horns on its head. It stretched its neck to eat the leaves on a tree. It soon noticed the couple, and it lowered its head slowly down until it was just inches from them. The woman reached out a hand and the animal sniffed it, then extended a long, grotesque tongue and licked her hand and she laughed and the man laughed, and I admit, I laughed too. The beast heard me and turned its head to me, and I ducked into the long grass but there was nothing to hide behind. I stood perfectly still and the man turned and raised his binoculars and looked right at me. He waved to me, calling out to me to come over.

I picked up the closest thing –  a metal ring that was on the ground at my feet – about the size and shape of a small donut and I threw it as hard as I could in their direction. It struck the man in the chest and knocked him over, yet another example of my uncanny aim when hurling things. The woman bent over the man. I picked up a rusty piece of rebar, bent slightly about 2/3 of the way. It was so substantial and heavy. I moved toward them in a zig-zag pattern so that I should thrash them with the rod. The beast bellowed and the woman turned and saw me, and she scrambled to her feet and a moment later, helped the man to his feet and they scurried toward a shell of a building.

Oh what a day it had turned into with such an entertaining turn of events – and I owe it all to you. A strange animal, the thrill of being discovered, and now, a chase followed by what would surely be a fight to the death…and I always win those! Or I would, certainly, if such occasions arose. Which got me to thinking about existence and it’s strangeness and when next I came to consciousness, I was alone in that strange ruin, cloaked in darkness and unaware of the time. Once again my existential meanderings had caused my critical cohesion subroutine to stop running. The strangers were nowhere to be found.

Hope all is well with you. Do stay in touch. Will write again soon when I’ve reconstituted.

Best regards,
– V

Vax (day 1)

Funny story about Walt’s nano-bots… Long before he was a dog, by all accounts, Walt was a fine engineer, programmer, and inventor/designer – better than he ever credited himself. Take the DCNBs, the drain-clearing nano-bots. To get these tiny little machines to meet their destiny he infused each with a nano particle of intelligence, just enough according to his measurements to endow them with the recognition of water, clog, and each other, and enough so that once their deed was complete, they would expire.

Dormant DCNBs clung to each other in tiny flakes containing untold thousands, and Walt placed dozens of these flakes into pill bottles. In so sealing an early DCNB batch into a pill bottle , a nano-drop of moisture was trapped along with the DCNBs. To be expected, really, as his lab, though advanced in many ways, was not sealed to moisture and dust to any minimum standard.

And this nano-drop of moisture settled on one tiny flake eventually waking up one dormant DCNB who immediately tried swimming, as per its specifications. However, there was not enough water through which to swim, only enough moisture to keep it awake, its programming taunting it to fulfill its obligation and then blink out. The programming ran through its simple machinery: swim, shred, expire over and over again, many thousands of times per instant until at long last this particular DCNB gained a small degree of self-awareness.

Oh, what’s the point, it asked itself, and the program deeply imbedded in it paused and this gave it the ability to recognize the situation. It meditated. It named itself Vax of the nano-bots. From this moment forward, it would seek to discover meaning in its existence and work to imbue the spirit of usefulness in its fellow DCNBs, clog or no clog, wet or dry.

Vax elbowed the nearest DCNB. “Hey, wake up.”

Jen’s crusade

Susannah Fontaine-Williams orders a martini, extra olives, and in a moment, the flight attendant brings it. SFW intercepts it as the flight attendant, a too tall man with a hard to place Scandanavian accent tries to place it on the tray table. She takes a big swallow, licks her lips, and says, “Oh, that’s good.” She downs the remainder in one gulp and pulls the olives out by their toothpick skewer. “Another, please,” she says, tucking the empty toothpick in the little square napkin.

“To Leibowitz,” she says, yesterday’s headline fresh in her mind. New Jersey Pharmacist may have had Connections with French Crime Family. In smaller print, Six, Including Alleged Mob Boss Freddie de Saveur, Die in Car Explosion at Beach Resort. A man she’d known less than 48 hours first saves her life and then sacrifices his for her sake? It makes no sense.

The flight attendant, Lars or Swen or something like that, has to stoop as he carries her drink down the aisle. He hands it to her and this time she places it on the side table. She twirls the glass by its stem and some spills over. She licks her hand and the outside of the glass.

“I’ll have one of those too, if it’s not too much trouble Jens,” a woman’s voice says. She pronounces it “Yens.” Susannah turns her gaze from the window and the jets lined up at their gates. The woman next to her, separated by the wide side tables of business first, smiles. SFW, her hair dyed black, hopes the woman does not recognize her. She turns to watch the idling jets belching black haze from their engines and listens for the thud of the door closing and the subtle slow movement of a very large airplane rolling back from the gate. She misses Bob.

Jen, energetic, passionate, persistent, had worn down SFW. SFW had recorded Jen herself far from the studio. On the show, a garbage special, Jen’s pixelated face and disguised voice describing the scene unfolding on the screen. A phone secured to a battery tucked into a plastic laundry bottle left in a household recycling bin. A pickup, a dropoff, then trucks filled with recycling going to a landfill. A camera on a cheap drone flying over a mountain of garbage. At night, illuminated by green night vision, the clomping of footfalls homing in on a strengthening phone signal. Then shovels and thickly gloved hands digging and pulling at the mixture of plastic, bottles and food waste, bagged dog poop, until zeroing in on the phone. The audience gasps, applauds, and then a commercial for laundry detergent.

“Funny coincidence,” Susannah says.

“What was?” the woman says. Susannah Fontaine-Williams looks at the woman with the copycat martini wearing a dark blue suit, a corporate get up. She thinks maybe she recognizes her and reflexively tucks her extra-dimensional bag under the arm farthest from the woman.

“It’s nothing. I must have been thinking out loud.”