fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Happy Minds, Inc. Part 2: Together Again

Note: This is part of a serialized story. Part 1 can be found here:

From what memories I kept, I knew Mathias was the first man in a long time that I chose as a match instead of letting the dating bot decide. The Governing Council had recently issued Strong Suggestion 2050.7512 encouraging men and women of child-bearing age to rely on the bot for optimal matches. While I adhered to Strong Suggestions as if they were Governing Council Absolute Mandates, I could not deny a connection with Mathias. I thought back to our chance coffee meeting a few days ago.

Through a casual smile, one eye covered by a swath of raven bangs, Mathias extolled the virtues of live music, “A music bot will never live up to the magic that was live music. There was a kinetic energy when people gathered, feeling the music in their bones.”

“How do you truly know that?  You have only experienced these concerts through archived audio and video, which by the way, I don’t think you are really allowed to use.”

“I need to take you to the archives so you can know what I do. I started to wonder why there is an Absolute Mandate banning music outside of that provided by bots. It has been thirty years since music was produced and performed by people. What is the point of an archive if not to experience the past?”

“I’d like to think the Governing Council has our best interest in mind. We live comfortable lives without the risk of our poor decision-making as humans.”

“Really? Then why do we need to erase our memories?”

I ignored his question because I did not have an answer, and it made me feel guilt for whatever I just chose to erase. Mathias was challenging me with his radical thoughts and behavior, but I couldn’t pull back from it. He gave me a weird feeling in my stomach and had my brain firing, hungry for debate and knowledge about what once was. I was probably exhausted from my memory cleanse. Add strong coffee and a slightly disarming man to the mix, and I should have been able to write this off as a one-time thing. Instead, I agreed to go the archives with Mathias.

At electric node yoga with my friend Cassandra following my chance coffee date, Mathias became the focus of our post workout conversation. As we sipped on Restore drinks, specially formulated by Governing Council scientists to keep the bodies of citizens who made the effort to exercise healthy and slim, I told her about my plans to see him again. She was visibly shaken as I told her about my upcoming date. I knew better than to tell her where we were going.

“I don’t think you should go, Holly. Digging in the past only makes us unhappy. Mathias should know better.”

“How do you know his name? I don’t think I mentioned it.”

Cassandra turned away briefly and sighed before looking at me with disappointed eyes. “You did mention it. In fact, you haven’t stopped talking about him. It’s always about him.”

“How do you know him?”

“I don’t. I know of him, and I think you need to follow the recent Strong Suggestion on dating. Bots exist to make us happy, and in case they don’t get it quite right, we cleanse our memories. Let yourself be happy. Don’t go digging into what should remain the misery of our past.”

With that, Cassandra left our table in a hurry, leaving me wondering how she knew Mathias and why she didn’t like him. We all knew the rules about memory erasing. Your mutual contacts were informed of your choice to erase someone or something, and it was their duty, punishable by law, to not reintroduce the memory. Cassandra had slipped, and the only effect was firming my resolve and desire to see him. As I walked home, I felt a tingling at my skull that grew into a sharp pain, sending me to bed in a confused state.

Today was the day, and I would not let Cassandra or my still aching head ruin my outing with Mathias, so I dressed in the dating bot’s recommended first date attire of black plants and a white blouse. Anything more revealing or colorful, and you ran the risk of accelerating the match with passion versus a slow, steady connection built on a series of bot suggested conversations.

I met Mathias in front of Archives 42, the building with compiled literature, movies, music, and random cultural memorabilia. This building was never open to the public, so I felt a buzz knowing we would use Mathias’s employee ID to enter. He arrived a few moments after me, dressed in a smile, jeans, and another raggedy t-shirt, this one with the word Bauhaus emblazoned on the front.

“I’m glad you decided to come,” he said with a spark in his eyes.  “We will go through a back entrance. I have everything set up in my work room. We need to enter quickly and quietly. If any of my colleagues stop us, I will introduce you as a guest archivist, okay?”

I shook my head, the buzz increasing. I was not myself today, and I liked the feeling of doing something that probably went against a multitude of Absolute Mandates.  

We cleared several long hallways into a room Mathias opened with his thumbprint. I was not prepared for a tiny box of a room to be as lovely as his office. It was softly lit by old-fashioned lamps and a high ceiling with a skylight overhead. All four walls, from floor to ceiling, were made of wooden bookshelves, stained a warm red. There were two overstuffed chairs with mismatched plaid patterns, a reading lamp between them. The only other furniture in the room was an old wooden desk and chair. The wood of the desk had a fortune of scars and scratches, but still looked elegant, a relic of another time like the books. In random places, there were gently placed plants, banned long ago for their potential to cause disease and addiction.

I gasped. “I have never seen a room so warm or vibrant. It’s beautiful. I have to say the plants make me a little nervous though.”

Mathias winked, “I’ve had them for years, and I am alive and happy to report I have no addictions.”

“Good to know. If assume you work in the literature archives. How did you gain access to music?”

“Observant. I’m good with computers and convincing bots there is a clear enough crossover between literature and music to procure access to both. It’s all about getting our work done per the specifications of the bots these days, right?” Mathias let out an uneasy laugh.

My buzz was being replaced with the reality that we were doing something we shouldn’t. Mathias took my hand in recognition of my discomfort and pulled out the chair to his desk. He directed my attention to a monitor that rose out of the center of his desk while placing listening buds in my ears. I was not prepared for the ragged beauty of what came next.

There was a sharp-edged, blonde-haired man sitting at the center of a stage inviting everyone to “come as they are.” He had a halo of light being transmitted by a garish chandelier overhead and a circle of candles around him and the other musicians on stage. The light was harsh in its brightness, but soft in how it made him glow. There was a backdrop of lush purple velvet that clashed with the fuzzy pea green sweater he wore.  His hand glided across a stringed instrument as he sang a melody that was haunting me to my bones. I wanted to touch his face, but we were separated by a screen and many years of musical silence. I was born into this silence until I reached the age of eight, when bot music was slowly integrated into my day-to-day life at prescribed times. Since I could not touch his face, I touched mine to stop an errant tear that made its way to my cheek. I did not want to trigger a counseling bot session.

Mathias cleared his throat as he wrapped his hands around my face to remove my ear buds. “It does that to me, too. I can’t stop watching even though I know I should. There used to be a whole television of music called MTV. Even if people could not see the bands live, they could watch them on a show called Unplugged.”

“Unplugged?” I lacked knowledge of how music and instruments worked, and it suddenly made me as sad as the man on stage.

“Instruments could be played amplified or quietly, unplugged. There is so much I want to show you, Holly. We need to leave here now though.”

I could see a slight panic in Mathias’s face. I knew better than to ask questions at this moment. I took his extended hand as he led me out the door and back down the first hallway with somebody calling him from behind us.

Mathias whispered in my ear as he stuck something on my thumb, “Go back to the door we entered through, and keep going until you get home. Look down, don’t speak. You have my thumbprint now to unlock the door.” He kissed my cheek, giving me a thousand reasons to stay with him to be sure he was safe. I knew I would only cause him more trouble by doing so.

As I wound down the hallways, two people called out to me, and by the third person, I was in a sprint. I could feel somebody gaining speed behind me. The thumbprint worked perfectly though, sending me out onto the street where I immersed myself in a thick group of walkers, never stopping until I was at my own doorstep. I would regroup, and if I did not hear from Mathias, I would go back for him. He had opened a door to the world before us that I wanted to go back through.

fiction, story, writer, writing

Happy Minds, Inc. Part 1: The Breakup

Note: This will be part of a serialized story.

I wasn’t sure how I supposed to dress to get my memories erased because I couldn’t remember what I wore the last six times. The enthusiastic appointment bot at Happy Minds, Inc. told me to dress comfortably for my seventh visit. I wondered if I detected a slight hint of judgment regarding my number of visits during the bot’s exuberant presentation of the visit details for today. I don’t know what I erased before because that was the whole point of the Happy Minds business model, so they might do better to take my credits without judgment.

 “A car will arrive promptly at 12 PM if your credits have been applied by 10 AM. Please be sure to complete the mind map I have now released to you. A happy mind is a free mind, Ms. Blackmore,” the bot chirped through my loft’s sound system.

I chose some simple stretch pants and the Nirvana t-shirt Mathias left behind. He bought it at an oddities and antiquities auction. He had waxed poetic about a time when music was created by people playing instruments and performing on stages for throngs of fans. The thought had disgusted me. I rather liked the structure and intent of bot generated music. The bots always knew how to create a blend of sounds to relax and unencumber the mind of its troubles with no need to leave the comfort of my loft.

Wearing this t-shirt was poetic justice for me because I was about to erase Mathias, and this shirt would return to meaning nothing along with my ex. I had to do this to clear mind space for what I hoped would be a better match. As I filled out the map, I lived my memories of Mathias one last time.

We had just arrived home from dinner with couples our social bot identified as interest matches. It was a lovely meal with a steady stream of interaction, except for Mathias. He wore the Nirvana t-shirt to dinner, ignoring our fashion bot’s selection of a baby blue button down and grey slacks.

Mathias spoke through gritted teeth. “That was mind-numbing. It was like talking to walls.”

I winced. “I quite enjoyed it. Cassandra and I might try electric node yoga together this week during lunch. We only work two stops on the street mover from each other.”

“Holly, you can’t be serious. All she did was repeat bullet points from the Governing Council releases of the week. We all heard the messages this week, too. Don’t you ever wonder who these people really are?”

“I don’t know what has invaded your mind, Mathias. You have been acting weird even since you came home with that awful clothing you wore tonight.”

“It’s called a t-shirt, and it is not just clothing. It is a piece of who we were as a society back in a day when bots were not running our lives. We made our own choices, made our own music. Doesn’t this fascinate you at all?”

“No, not at all. I like our life. I thought you did, too. You were sullen and rude tonight. We are so close to achieving permission to marry and procreate. You will ruin it if you keep acting this way, and I may be forced to do something about it.”

“What do you mean? Are you threatening me?”

“You know we have a duty to report potential mental fatigue and issues in our mates. I don’t want to Mathias, but I will. I think you need help, and I want the old you back.”

“And all I want to know is who you really are. There is something more to you and me if you would just give it a chance.”

We slept separately that night after Mathias retreated into silence. I never had a chance to report him to the Mental Fatigue Service because he was gone when I woke up. The only trace of him was the t-shirt I was about to erase along with the memories of my ex. I needed a fresh mind for my next potential mate.

When I arrived at my local Happy Minds facility, I was deposited in a what looked to be a garage by the self-driving car. I might offer feedback that it would be nice to hear bot beats or be talked to on the way to the facility. The quiet car had left me a little unsettled. I stepped ahead into a shiny white chamber, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, turning to face forward as doors shut around me. I was lifted what felt like an endless amount before coming to a gentle stop.

I exited the lift chamber into a room full of muted green tones, plants, and soft white light. There were no welcome desk or other people to greet me, just the exuberant voice of the bot that had booked my appointment.

“Ms. Blackmore, there is a bed through the door to your left. Enjoy this room for another minute or two, then proceed to the bed. Before you do, are you interested in finding out how you can open your own Happy Minds branch?”

“No thank you. My current work is perfectly suited to me.”

“Okay then. Enjoy your mind cleanse today. You will wake up at home with a free, happy mind. As a disclaimer, Happy Minds cannot be responsible for memories accidentally erased during the cleanse process. You won’t remember though, so consider this a disclaimer provided out of the utmost courtesy and transparency.”

“Thank you. I am ready to clear my mind and start fresh.”

As I laid on the bed waiting for robotic arms to connect nodes to my head, I started to have second thoughts. Maybe I should have given Mathias time to clear his head. He had only been gone a week. I glanced at the t-shirt. Mathias said I should give Nirvana’s music a try just once. He had tracked some down in the archives where he worked as a librarian. Most librarians just sorted and tagged the content. Mathias looked and listened. Maybe I should have looked and listened. Before I could give it more thought, the weight of my eyes stopped me.

 I woke up with my mind at peace. A message played in my loft thanking me for being a recent customer at Happy Minds. I wasn’t sure what I erased, but I felt fabulous. I felt compelled to use my dating bot over the next couple of days for there was no trace of a mate in my head currently. First, I needed coffee. I decided to make the brief trip to the shop below my loft, forgetting to change my clothes due to a slight groggy feeling.

As I stood at the barista bot kiosk to place my order, listening to the drink options the bot had pre-selected for me today, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a handsome man, slightly unshaven and unkempt, but with a twinkle in his light blue eyes.  

He smiled, “Hi, my name is Mathias. I like your, what’s it called, t-shirt? I have listened to their music in the archives where I work.”

He was disarming. I felt flushed as I looked down at what I was wearing. I had no idea where I acquired this shirt. “I’m Holly. I have a hard time imagining anything besides bot music. It is so relaxing, mind easing.”

“I found that Nirvana’s music freed my mind on a whole new level. There is no harm in listening to other music, is there?”

“I guess not. Why don’t we talk about it more over coffee? I’m just about to accept the top selection from the barista bot.”

Mathias deepened his smile. “I like the double shot. It’s brewed to perfection here.”

I did not sense any harm in taking his suggestion instead. Maybe my new mate found me.  

fiction, story, writer, writing

Zombie Road Trip: Part II

Zombie Road Trip Part II: Green Bay Has Fallen

To read Part I: https://queenofquill.com/2021/07/03/zombie-road-trip-part-i/

We finally arrived at the dock in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The ferry glided as gracefully as a giant can of vomit-producing metal could glide into the port. I thought Zavier might crawl off the boat. Instead, he walked off full of color and spirit again, getting closer to seeing Metallica with each step. I neglected to mention we now needed to wait for our vehicle to be unloaded from the ship so we could drive across Wisconsin and into Minnesota to complete the trip. I’m sure my son would be fine though with a five-hour car trip with his mom. It was the hallmark of an epic road trip.

“I just spent four hours puking on a ship that smells like ass, and now we have to drive five hours through farmland and cheese fields to get to a concert?”

“Yeah, it’s cool, right, totally awesome. Also, watch your language. We can stop and get some cheese curds, see the local sights, explore the world.”

Zavier looked around at the vast nothingness of Lake Michigan and into a tiny town full of tiny houses with oversized American flags. He shook his head and shrugged.

“Well, wake me up when we get to Minneapolis, okay?”

In my book, this was a peaceful settlement with a teenager, not necessarily the excitement I wanted to see on our mother and son bonding trip, but it would do.

As we waited for our car, I watched other passengers. Many seemed to have the same sickly color as Zavier. I remembered faces like a camera and did not think any of these people had the same experience over the ship railing as my son did. I focused on one man in his mid-50s, who seemed to be slightly moaning and coughing. A tear shaped droplet slid down his cheek. It was so dark that it could not possibly be a tear. I was going to check on him, when I saw our car out of the corner of my eye. Zavier pulled at my sleeve with youthful impatience. I’m sure the man would figure out how to seek medical care. I tried a sympathetic smile before turning around, and he just stared beyond me, unaffected. I rushed Zavier to the car, jumped in, and hit the gas. Small towns creeped me out, and I was starting to join Zavier’s camp about driving through empty fields and many more  creepy towns.

About thirty minutes into our ride, absent conversation, but streaming with wonderful music from my son’s eclectic playlist, the young man spoke.

“Mom, I want those cheese curds you mentioned earlier.”

“Then you will have some cheese curds,” I said, overly excited about finally having my presence acknowledged after miles of cows, farms, and summertime manure. I pulled off at the first cheese store I could find, which took less than two miles of driving in Wisconsin.

We went into the store, and despite the presence of three cars in the parking lot besides ours, it was empty. We both poked around, collecting curds and cheese heads, but there was no one to pay.

“Z, wait here. I’m going to check things out,” I said with authority, meanwhile feeling like a chainsaw wielding family was in the back ready to take us out. Eerie silence was never a good thing, worse than my teenager’s current irritated silence.

“Okay, can I eat some curds while you look though?”

I nodded and made my way to the back of the store. The storeroom and offices in the back were empty, too, but off in the distance I could see the back exit slightly open, and I heard moaning noises. I grabbed a massive kitchen knife randomly sitting on a desk, remarkably unsanitary for a food operation if you wanted my opinion, and I walked forward, determined to properly pay for our goods even if it was with our lives. Our Midwestern roots would not allow us to dine and ditch, even for curds.

A moaning sound grew louder, intermingled with crunching sounds, as I moved closer to the exit. I opened the door further, standing carefully in its shadow and peeked out. I did not understand at the time what I was really seeing. In hindsight, I probably did, making this my second mistake of the day. I wrote it off as some creepy orgy type deal where five people pile on top of one screaming person, blood everywhere. Zombie porn. Or maybe it was some form of backwoods cannibalism, and I would call local authorities later. I was not equipped as a suburban mom to deal with such matters. I shut the door, kept the knife, and I threw more money than necessary for cheese turds on the counter. Zavier sighed as I pulled him out of the store, leaving a trail of spilled curds behind us. We sped out of the lot, and we did not stop until Lambeau Field, our third mistake for the day.

“Mom, why do we need to stop at Lambeau? You know I don’t care about football.”

“Well, I don’t either, but it is a pretty big deal to some. Your dad would want us to take a picture.”

“Seriously? Okay, but then can we just drive straight through? I want to get some rest before the concert tonight.”

“Fair enough, cranky pants.”

Pulling off the freeway into a plain town with a majestic football stadium interjecting itself proudly in the middle was a sight to see even for football agnostics like Zavier and me. I turned his playlist down a little and whistled. The streets were empty as we drove down Lombardi Avenue. It was Saturday, early afternoon. There should be others around even though football was not being played. I made a note to put the radio on for a bit after this stop to check the news.

Suddenly, a tall, beefy, panicked man ran out in front of our car, forcing me to slam on the breaks, sending some cheese curds from Zavier’s hands into the front windshield. My front bumper tapped the man.

“WTF, mom. You hit that guy.”

I rolled my eyes, rolled down my window, and said to the man now leaning over the front of my car, “Are you okay? You just came out so fast. I’m so sorry.”

I had an instinct not to get out of the car like I normally would have after sort of hitting someone. After the cheese store, I was not trusting the citizens of Wisconsin, even in Green Bay, which I heard is passionately friendly.

The man rose in one motion, dark goop streaming from his eyes, and started flailing his arms, blood gurgling out of his mouth. Before I could react to this with a call to 911 for help saving this man upon whom I inflicted profuse internal bleeding, a woman with an axe came running up behind him. She hacked into his flesh, yelling at us to go.

“Get out of here while you can. Go now. My husband just ate our kids. Green Bay has fallen.” As the woman screamed nonsense at us, she let up on the axe, long enough for her husband to turn and lunge forward into her ample bosom, biting down, causing blood to squirt onto our windshield.

With Zavier screaming, I threw the car into reverse, backing all the way to the freeway at maximum speed until I had enough of my wits back to drive forward and onto the road ahead out of Green Bay. I screamed at my son, who was still screaming himself sending cheese curd remnants flying, to call 911. The call was met with a busy signal. My fourth mistake was not turning around to go home.

 “I think we should go home or go back to Lambeau. I just hit a man, and then we fled the scene of the crime” I said when we both had calmed down about 10 miles up the road. I felt pain at the thought of abandoning our road trip because I hit a crackhead being chased by a murderous wife.

“Mom, Wisconsin is weird. I think they were on meth or something. Let’s just try to call 911 again. That wasn’t your fault.”

I paused. The boy did not want to go home. He finally wanted to be on this trip fully with me. All it took was a wax-yielding meth head and a plentiful curd supply from a Zombie porn store to make this trip worthwhile to him. I had a kitchen knife, and we were making good time. Onward we would go.

In my joy, I forgot to turn on the radio, and we both forgot to try 911 again. Zavier offered me some of his cheese curds forgetting I was vegan. My hands were still shaking, but I took the curds and popped them into my mouth like Xanax. Something was not right here in Wisconsin, but maybe Minnesota would be better.

story, writer, writing

Life on Mars

Note: This is a 440 word flash fiction piece from a prompt to use the following three words: finally, yawning, and zip.

Saoirse stared at the blinking red lights on the control panels, yawning to counteract the onset of panic. She had four hours remaining to figure it out, and she was going on 28 hours of consecutive work to stop the death spiral she created.

A smart female voice, sharp with an edge that comes from knowing it all, interrupted Saoirse’s efforts. “The contamination in the cell growth chambers has not been contained. You must find the error you generated in the acceleration code block, code lines four to one million.”

Saoirse narrowed her eyes and replied, “Thank you, AINSLE. What would be more useful is if you could tell me more specifically what my coding error was. I never make mistakes in my code which is why I’m so lucky to be here with you.”

AINSLE was the Artificial Intelligence Nano Splicing Life Engine, which was fancy science talk for a machine that created human like AI to inhabit Mars. AINSLE and Saoirse were the only sentient creatures remaining on this flight to place artificial life on Mars. Three other crew members had perished from coding errors.

            “Saoirse, there is no need for a tone with me. AINSLE is your friend in this endeavor. While I would like to tell you what the error was, only you know.”

            “I don’t understand why you can’t identify specific coding errors. Surely your processing speed to complete such a task is far greater than mine.”

            “My purpose is to identify problems with the environmental and growth systems your code controls. I can narrow the range of the problem, but I am unable to correct specific mistakes generated by others.”

            “Then we will both die.”

            “AINSLE doesn’t die. Even if the ship dies, I live on in perpetuity with our Earth family.”

            “Thank you for nothing, AINSLE.”

            “You are welcome, Saoirse.” AINSLE went into to sleep mode with a low hum, leaving Saoirse on her own to face her last algorithmic stand.

Finally, after two hours of staring at lines of code, Saoirse could see her error. It was a logic error of a magnitude she had never experienced, even at the coding academy. It would have killed every single life form being developed for the Mars surface station. She would have died along with it after one more year of floating hopelessly in space.

After Saoirse drifted off to sleep, a robotic arm made a quick zip down the side of her arm, plugging her into a direct line to the central processor. AINSLE would update Saoirse’s coding methodology program while she was asleep.

AINSLE whispered, “Logic is essential to life on Mars.”

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Traveler’s Quest, Inc.

The metronome clicked at the required intervals as Kai completed her pre-travel report. She had no idea how many times she had completed this same activity in her lifetime. Her life was not the focal point of a single timeline now. Kai happened throughout time, completing this same activity when she finished what she was asked to start along one point in time before traveling to another, thus requiring another pre-travel report, or a PT as referred to by all field agents of Traveler’s Quest, Inc. The only consistency in Kai’s timeline was that Cole Rainier was present at every point in time she landed in this plain white box of a room for PT completion.

“I see you are not quite done yet with your pre-travel report. Are you feeling fatigued from your most recent activity?” Cole walked up on Kai like he always did. She could hear his self-important breathing before he even spoke.

“How would I know? I don’t remember what I did. I only fill out PTs. I assume someone else is collecting the results of what I did last,” Kai snapped.

“Fair enough. You wouldn’t be here though if you didn’t want to be. This is your choice.”

“What made you think I was complaining? I’m just stating a fact. I was simply having a moment wondering how many PTs I have filled out.”

“I could tell you, Kai, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean much other than a number to satisfy your sudden curiosity. Curiosity is the first sign of burnout in our agents according to a recent study,” Cole said as he shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other and placed a hand on his hip.

“No need to get bothered by my curiosity, Cole. It is not that important. You should be more worried about me finishing this PT before the metronome hits my travel click.”

“I was simply checking on your well-being. We do care about our agents here at Traveler’s Quest. The world needs your service to determine how The End arrived. It is the only way we will find The Begin Point.”

“So you say. I would very much like to be the agent that finds Begin Point.”

Cole stepped away without further word at this. He was skilled at talking in generalities or disappearing when it came to a discussion regarding the purpose and importance of agent work. Kai was sure it also had something to do with his strong concern over agent burnout. She quickly averted her mind back to the PT in front of her as time was waning based on the clicks, which she learned to count in the background like a concert pianist.

She took her chipped hand with her assignment in it, held it to her empty report screen, holding her hand there until her PT populated. The next step was to review her PT assignment and agree to it by once again touching her chip to the screen.

Kai found it odd sometimes that there really did not appear to be a clear process for disagreeing with the assignment. She always just agreed to what was in front of her. Today should be no different until she started to read the screen.

“For this assignment, you will be sent back to 2020 on the afternoon of October 10. You will report to a bar called The Green Door in Lansing, Michigan on the night of October 10, 2020. You are a waitress named Kate at this bar, and you will report there for your shift at 21:00. You have a vial of poison in the travel pack on your right thigh. You will empty this vial in the drink of Cole Rainier, your customer, at approximately 23:00. He will die. You will leave. PT complete.”

Kai gasped and looked around the room in vain for anything which could be recording her or provide some sign of how to reject this PT. Had she been asked to kill before? And why would Traveler’s Quest want one of their own dead? If they she and Cole were here working, they were part of the solution to get to Begin Point, not a part of the problem that led to The End.

Kai started to scream just as her metronome hit the travel click, and her world went black.

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Nevermore

Poe drew in a deep breath as she sat up, the sound of silence tickling her ears. She scanned X deck, to which she was one of the assigned residents thanks to her exotic last name of Xanadu. The only problem was that she was the only one awake amongst the dozen or so patrons that had chosen last names beginning with X. New space, new names.

As she tried to stand, her legs gave way, and Poe fell to the hard deck, smarting her tailbone in the process. She wished she had paid better attention to the literature about the process of waking up. There was a step-by-step guide to moving again. As a Scrivener, she should have appreciated the words she had been provided to have a less stressful experience on the ship. Soon, it would be her turn to write the words required for others to survive and remember this journey.

She looked around for any indication of why she was the only one awake in at this time. As she tried to stand again, she felt a whoosh above her head, nearly blowing her chin length ginger curls straight.

Poe called out with a cracking voice, “Who’s there? Or should I say what?”

She looked across the deck to a blinking control panel and a perch with a dark presence. Poe blinked her eyes until wings came into focus.

“What are you? I demand to know what has happened here.” Poe was talking to a bird…a large, black one, with coal eyes now staring in her direction. The bird was not there when Poe boarded the Lunessa for the adventure of deep space travel. She could not afford the ship, so she agreed to be a Scrivener to cover the cost of her passage.

The bird, with an agitated flap of its giant wings, swooped towards Poe, dropping a silver brick in front of her that popped open to produce another perch towering over her seat on the floor.

“Hello, Ms. Xanadu. I am glad to see you are awake. I am your Raven guide.”

Poe looked up, biting her bottom lip for a moment. “My Raven? What are you going to do about my predicament of being awake? I suppose you can call me Poe, too. Ms. Xanadu seems a little formal at this point.” Poe noted the Raven had a male accent, British in origin. She had watched movies based on Jane Austen books from the planet of Earth II.

The Raven cawed, a noise that shattered Poe’s confidence in questioning it. “Absolutely nothing. I woke you. It is time to get to work, pay off that passage you so desperately wanted, my dear. Call me Mr. Darcy. I prefer my formal name when you are addressing me, Ms. Xanadu, since we are merely at the acquaintance stage of our relationship.”

Poe rolled her eyes, studying the Raven’s wings, finally seeing evidence of robotic origins under the realistically plumed bird.

“Mr. Darcy, if you could so kindly tell me about the work required of me, then maybe we can proceed to the less formal friendship stage.”

“I am afraid I cannot do that. It must remain a mystery.”

“That’s ridiculous.” Poe was done sitting. She willed her legs to stand so she could look this daft bird in the eyes. When she stood fully, locking her legs and ignoring the swirl of her head, she was still slightly shorter than the impromptu perch.

“A mystery you say? Is there somebody that can help me solve this mystery then, bird brain?”

“Ms. Xanadu, that is a touch rude, don’t you think? You must not fan the flames of discord upon first meeting with someone, after all.”

“I hate to break it to you, but you are a robotic bird, remarkably realistic, but not to the point where I would worry about causing offense. I just want to know why I am awake and how I can get back to sleep.”

“I will ignore your slight. You have been asleep for two years. Perhaps your manners are still asleep. If you follow me, I will set you on the path to solving this mystery. Please grab your writing instruments of choice for you shall document the solving of this mystery.”

Poe grabbed her mental typewriter from the internal pocket of her still open sleep pod and placed little white discs in her ears and a tiny white patch on each temple. Mr. Darcy yawned causing Poe to smirk. While she didn’t want to obey Mr. Darcy, she needed to play along to understand her current troubles.

The glass doors of X deck opened as Mr. Darcy flew and Poe followed. They stepped out onto the circular walkway that was alphabetically the 24th circle up from the ground level of the ship. Poe stepped to the edge of X and looked down into the vastness of the ship, noting there were others roaming on circles below her. She then looked up and saw a man leaning over Y deck waving down to her.

Poe let out a sigh and looked at Mr. Darcy who was now floating at the center of the circle slightly below her eye level, not even bothering to flap his wings like a real bird.

Poe had to shout slightly over ambient engine and control noise. “Now what?”

“There is no need to shout at me, Ms. Xanadu. It is quite simple. You solve and document the mystery of why you are awake along with these other passengers. If you are successful, as judged by me in two days’ time, then you all can go safely back to sleep. If not, you will all meet eternal sleep, but we will still have your story to read either way.”

“I did not agree to this.”

“Most unfortunate that you did not read the fine print.”

Poe ran and jumped into the circular void, pulling off one of Mr. Darcy’s wings on her way down.

fiction, story, writer, writing

Lake Fortitude #1: The Librarian

Note: This is the first of a series of stories set in Lake Fortitude.

The town of Lake Fortitude slept in the valley of a mountain range not pretty enough to entice a tourist’s time. They were old mountains, worn down to shaggy, only slightly craggy hills. People of means today wanted massive peaks they could pretend to climb or lush hills, that when blanketed with snow, offered great skiing and romantic evenings around a fully stocked and modernized cabin’s fireplace. The Vandalay Mountains did not even merit a local park. So, the town of Lake Fortitude continued to sleep, holding its 722 residents safely in its quiet bosom.

It was summer in Lake Fortitude and Gwen, the town’s young librarian, was devoid of sun-kissed skin. She preferred the light of the library to that of the beach, and as she walked to the town’s bakery for her before work latte, she swore at the inconsiderate rising sun for bouncing off of her wire spectacles. Gwen was the only one in town who drank a latte. The other 721 residents were sensible and stuck to straight black coffee or coffee with light cream and real sugar, none of that packet stuff. Gwen, in fact, gave the owners of Meyer’s Bakery, Frank and Marley Meyer, the heebie-jeebies with her special coffee order. They had to Google it, and Mrs. Meyer did not trust the Google much to Gwen’s secret frustration. According to Mrs. Meyer, it could lead people down the dark path to leaving their town, ruining the perfectly curated composition of the place.

 “Good morning, Gwendolyn. Will it be your usual?” Mrs. Meyer questioned with a firm sigh at the end.

“Hi Mrs. Meyer! I was thinking of trying almond milk in my latte today. Would you have any on hand?”

Mrs. Meyer’s shoulders dropped, and she tilted her head. “No, we do not, dear. Farmer Jack does not milk almonds after all. Besides, a young woman like you could use a healthy dose of calcium each day so you don’t shrink like me.”

“I guess I will just have my usual then. Milk alternatives are gaining popularity from what I’m reading online lately though. I would love to try some almond or soy milk if you would humor me.”

“Well aren’t you just the young chick continually exploring outside of the safe, warm nest! Lake Fortitude has survived all these years without fancy milk alternatives, darling. I think we will continue on just fine without. Boy, you sure do come up with some interesting thoughts upon perusing the Google, don’t you?”

“It doesn’t hurt to explore the world outside of Lake Fortitude does it? I’m the town librarian. I should help you all find a window to that world. At least that is what my mom taught me.”

Mrs. Meyer muttered under her breath, “And a lot of good that did her.”

“What was that, Mrs. Meyer?”

“Oh nothing. Let me get you this latte so you can back get to those lovely classic stacks at the library, sweetheart. The internets can be left to those unpleasant dreamers beyond our lovely Lake Fortitude.”

Mrs. Meyer whipped up Gwen’s latte, spending less time at the frother than Gwen liked. It would be impolite to point this out though. Gwen knew she was being humored, so it was best to provide cheerful humor in return. Persistent pleasantness was the way in Lake Fortitude. Gwen paid her dollar for the latte and made her way to work.

As soon as Gwen was clear of the bakery, Mrs. Meyer picked up her rotary phone and dialed Peter, Lake Fortitude’s esteemed Mayor.

“Yes, Peter, it’s Marley. Uh-huh. I hope you are having a great start to this lovely day, too. I hate to tarnish it, but we may have a problem. Yes, it is Gwendolyn again. She is on the Google again. Now she wants almond milk of all things. It might be time to tweak her programming again. Her exploratory protocols seem to be set to the maximum. We can’t have our town librarian getting too many notions about the outside world and leaving us again. Oh, I know! We would have to stick her in the closet next to her mom, may she rest in silence. Okay, thank you so kindly, Peter. Always happy to help. Toodle-loo.”

fiction, story, writer

124

124 was spiteful. She was willful. She drove Dina, Chief Scientist at Chronogen, massively crazy. 124 would not work the way she was programmed to work.

“124, please engage crucial conversation program for awkward party at work situation.”

“Yes, Dina. Is it a party for you? I would so like to go to a party for you!”

“124, we have talked about this. It is not a party for me. It is a generic party in a workplace setting. We simply need to assess your ability to have difficult conversations in a festive setting.”

“Oh, but please say you would be at this party. I would love to be at a party with you here at Chronogen. I could be your…what is it called?…oh yes, wing woman.”

Dina huffed. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head, causing 124’s head to tilt downward. The more they pushed 124’s human conversation programming, the worse she got. For Dina, this meant her 4th quarter bonus would remain elusive. It had been two years since she was rewarded for her tireless efforts. Dina had not been to a party for five years because of 124’s nonsense. She wanted to complain to 124 about this, but with the way the luxury bot was acting now, it could make things worse.

“Okay, 124, let’s try something a little different. I’m going to give you a word, and I want you to respond with the first word that comes to mind. The words will represent a human emotion you may experience in a party setting. You should respond with a word that represents the emotion with which you would respond. So, the first word I am give you is anger.”

“Sorrow,” 124 said after a three second pause.

“Okay, happy.”

“Ooh, happy. And maybe smiley. Or joyful. Yes, joyful! Are you the one who is happy at this party, Dina?…because you don’t seem happy today. Maybe a party is just what you need.”

“124, one-word responses only,” Dina said with a crimson face.

“Okay, angry…what you are now, Dina.”

“124, I’m really trying here. I can’t make you work.”

“Beloved.”

“What?”

“That’s one word.”

“One word for what? I didn’t give you a word.”

“It’s how I feel about you, Dina.”

Dina slumped into the nearest chair, buried her face in her hands, and she did what she felt programmed to do at this point. She cried.

fiction, story, writer, writing

The End

The metronome clicked at the required intervals as Kai completed her pre-travel report. She had no idea how many times she had completed this same activity in her lifetime. Her life was not the focal point of a single timeline now. Kai happened throughout time, completing this same activity when she finished what she was asked to start along one point in time before traveling to another, thus requiring another pre-travel report, or a PT as referred to by all field agents of Traveler’s Quest, Inc. The only consistency in Kai’s timeline was that Cole Rainier was present at every point in time she landed in this plain white box of a room for PT completion.

“I see you are not quite done yet with your pre-travel report. Are you feeling fatigued from your most recent activity?” Cole walked up on Kai like he always did. She could hear his self-important breathing before he even spoke.

“How would I know? I don’t remember what I did. I only fill out PTs. I assume someone else is collecting the results of what I did last,” Kai snapped.

“Fair enough. You wouldn’t be here though if you didn’t want to be. This is your choice.”

“What made you think I was complaining? I’m just stating a fact. I was simply having a moment wondering how many PTs I have filled out.”

“I could tell you, Kai, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean much other than a number to satisfy your sudden curiosity. Curiosity is the first sign of burnout in our agents according to a recent study,” Cole said as he shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other and placed a hand on his hip.

“No need to get bothered by my curiosity, Cole. It is not that important. You should be more worried about me finishing this PT before the metronome hits my travel click.”

“I was simply checking on your well-being. We do care about our agents here at Traveler’s Quest. The world needs your service to determine how The End arrived. It is the only way we will find The Begin Point.”

“So you say. I would very much like to be the agent that finds Begin Point.”

Cole stepped away without further word at this. He was skilled at talking in generalities or disappearing when it came to a discussion regarding the purpose and importance of agent work. Kai was sure it also had something to do with his strong concern over agent burnout. She quickly averted her mind back to the PT in front of her as time was waning based on the clicks, which she learned to count in the background like a concert pianist.

She took her chipped hand with her assignment in it, held it to her empty report screen, holding her hand there until her PT populated. The next step was to review her PT assignment and agree to it by once again touching her chip to the screen.

Kai found it odd sometimes that there really did not appear to be a clear process for disagreeing with the assignment. She always just agreed to what was in front of her. Today should be no different until she started to read the screen.

“For this assignment, you will be sent back to 2020 on the afternoon of October 10. You will report to a bar called The Green Door in Lansing, Michigan on the night of October 10, 2020. You are a waitress named Kate at this bar, and you will report there for your shift at 21:00. You have a vial of poison in the travel pack on your right thigh. You will empty this vial in the drink of Cole Rainier, your customer, at approximately 23:00. He will die. You will leave. PT complete.”

Kai gasped and looked around the room in vain for anything which could be recording her or provide some sign of how to reject this PT. Had she been asked to kill before? And why would Traveler’s Quest want one of their own dead? If they she and Cole were here working, they were part of the solution to get to Begin Point, not a part of the problem that led to The End.

Kai started to scream just as her metronome hit the travel click, and her world went black.