Tuesday, April 30, 2013

"Merely Meredith: A Modern Persuasion" Excerpt--Dinner With The Elliots

He stood at the tray of the printer, scanning the contents of the e-mail in question with his back toward me, absorbed in reading the contents. Another paper slid out, followed by several more. My heart slipped down to my toes; how had they all managed to reply at the same time, and why did it have to be a time when my dad would be the one to see them?
Dad eyed me suspiciously. "Well, somebody's been busy!" he chided me.
I could do nothing as he thumbed through the sheaf.
"Nature Wonder—hmph!—GreenBlog, Wings 'n' Things (what kind of name is that?); oh! Is this a letter from Genevieve Macon, too?" he snorted. "What do YOU know about fashion?"
"Dad," I endeavored to make him see, "These are acceptance letters for some articles and reviews I wrote; they are going to be posted on their sites and blogs."
"Why should you write for websites?" Dad grumbled, spitting the word as if it had some distasteful connotation. "Using email to sell yourself to tabloids and muckrakers—no, worse!" He pulled a page out of the stack and shoved it in my face, "According to what it says here, you want to be a blogger? What good is that? And who is Taylor26Man? He seems to know a lot about you! 'I can't stop thinking about what you told me last time; your words inspired me'! Are you seeing somebody, Meredith?"
I'll admit, those words did seem suspicious when foisted from their context in this way; but the communication between me and Taylor had always maintained a mutually minimal level, with the proper constraints of Internet anonymity. How could I make my dad understand?
"I promise you," I tried to tell him, "I've never met this guy; we only talk business. He doesn't even know which state I live in, nor my real name. I'm not seeing him. We have never once seen each other."
My dad still scoffed, "You've never seen him? Why are you writing to him, then? In my day, people wrote letters to people they knew; now my daughter is writing to a perfect stranger?"
"Dad! That's not true and you know it!"
"Okay, then WHAT ARE YOU DOING?"
Monica interrupted us with a soft knock on the doorway from Dad's office to the foyer.
"Dinner is ready," she announced, smiling at us.
Dad turned away without glancing my direction.
"Dad," I groaned, following him toward the dining room. "If you'd let me get a computer for my apartment in Houston—"
He cut me off. "Out of the question! Heck, I'm not gonna throw my money after you if you're going to sneak around behind my back like this! Ellie," His voice was almost a whine as he handed the sheaf of papers—my e-mails— "look at what your sister has been doing!"
Ellie snapped them up and scanned them vengefully. "Fashion!" she gasped at the letter from Genevieve. My sister sneered at me. "Since when?" She didn't wait for a reply, but rattled on as we sat down to mango-glazed steak and asparagus tips made by Monica. "Oh, speaking of, Daddy dearest, I was thinking of getting a small makeover done tomorrow while I was out shopping, just a little nose thing, a bit in my forehead, you know—and what do you think, should I go ruddy or raven?" She pulled at strands of her hair and inspected them closely.
Dad gazed at his oldest daughter. There was a glint in his eye that expressed his agreement with everyone who saw our family: Elaine Elliot was the most beautiful person anyone had ever met. Her sparkling aquamarine eyes that looked like the impossibly clear water around a tropical island. Her hair that always looked amazing even in the first thirty seconds after she sits up in bed. (We shared a room till she was ten; I would know). Ellie never seemed to get pimples, she never had chicken pox, her skin was flawless, her lips full and soft—I didn't wonder why my sister didn't look at me if she could help it. She was so perfect, I might as well be invisible. Phoebe—my "second mother" who stepped in after Mom died—always said I looked like my mother, but if that was true, Dad probably married her for her social status, not her beauty. I had tiny pockmarks from a violent case of the chicken pox when I was seven, I had dull-blonde hair that was so dull that highlights looked like a bad dye job, I had eyes the color of mud, my lips were always dry, my hair was always frizzy and looked like a rabid ferret in the mornings—I would guess that either Ellie couldn't pick me out of a crowd, even with her amazing eyes, or perhaps she was afraid that my plainness was contagious. I know I would believe it.
Dad picked his fork up and speared another bite."I think—"
Ellie tossed a manicured hand, "Oh, you don't have to give an answer right away, I can hear about it tomorrow. Say, are we doing anything this weekend?"
Dad shook his head. "I don't think so."
Ellie smiled, "Let's all go to the movies! There's this new Confessions movie coming out and I practically promised Penelope that we'd be there."
Penelope Sharpe was Ellie's most devoted sycophant. She was the aged, spinster daughter of Dad's legal advisor.
Dad mulled over Ellie's decision as he chewed a bite of steak. "Well, I guess it won't be too bad," he acquiesced.
"Of course not!" Ellie gave one of her musical titters. "We can go to Suga's for dinner and catch a cab out to Hollywood Theaters."
Suga's was a Deep-South cuisine in the opposite direction from the theaters. "Why not eat dinner somewhere closer to the theater?" I suggested.
Ellie frowned without turning in my direction. "We'll be close!" she insisted. "Besides, there are only cheap, dirty places near the theater. You want to eat at Fuddruckers, Meredith?" She finally turned to me, grimacing with pure derision.
I couldn't hold her gaze, I picked at my plate, "I was just thinking someplace like that Japanese grill."
Ellie snorted, "Whatever; Monica already confirmed reservations at Suga's for five o'clock on Friday."
"Have you booked the theater yet?" Dad asked.
Ellie turned to him with a smile. "Private showing in Theater 9 at 8:30."
Dad patted her hand. "That's my girl!"
I knew if Ellie was getting Penelope along, I could probably use reinforcements, someone in my favor. "If Ellie's bringing Penelope along, can I tell Phoebe and invite her?" I asked.
Dad wouldn't take his eyes off my sister. "Whatever you want, Meredith."
Yeah, right! How about another life? I left the table and went into the office. I called Phoebe and told her about the movie Friday night.
"Oh, that sounds like so much fun!" Trust Phoebe to put a positive spin on things.
"It will be if you're there with me," I commented, "There doesn't seem to be anybody else on my side anymore."
"Now honey," Phoebe reprimanded me gently, "it's a family, not a debate! Your father just has a different way of expressing himself."
"I just wonder if things would be different if Mom were still around."
"Now honey, you always say that." Phoebe sighed. "Though, I'll have to agree with you. Anna was the best thing to ever happen to your father." She clicked her tongue, but continued in a brighter tone, "All that aside, how are you, Mer? It's been days since we have been able to chat."
I sighed, mentally laying the topic of my mother aside; another day, perhaps.
"I'm doing all right, Phoebe."
"Houston treating you well?"
I twisted the phone cord around my fingers, enmeshing them in the slick spiral. "Oh, always; the Grahams are really sweet, and my coworkers arenice people."
"What's the nightlife like?" If ever there were a signature query for a person, this would be Phoebe Russell's. Widowed at a relatively young age by a man who held a fortune in diamond mines, Phoebe had a very celebrity-esque capacity all to herself. But she would never be the sort to spend it all on herself; Phoebe was so selfless that the only thing she wanted to do with her inherited fortune was to find someone to share it with. What better way to find such an opportunity than spending most nights on the town looking for it?
But I was not that kind of person in the least. "I wouldn't know," I answered, "I don't go out much."
"Oh, Meredith!" Phoebe had always been convinced that a burgeoning social life was the key to unlocking lifelong commitment. "You should, you know; how will you ever expect to find your soulmate if he can't even tell that you exist?"
I heard the dinner conversation dwindle, and I knew Dad and Ellie were already whispering and making "offhand" comments about how long I was spending on the phone. I seized the chance to avoid having to talk about relationships with Phoebe; it was still a sore spot between us since the day she had asked me to consider breaking it off with my first-ever boyfriend.
"I have to go," I told her, leaving her question unanswered. "See you Friday!"
"All right; thanks, Meredith."

I returned to the table. Ellie's eyes were glued to her plate, and Dad would only give me a split-second glance.
"So…" I tried to break the awkward silence, "what were you guys—"
Dad pulled out one of the e-mails, his face livid as he read the sender.
"Meredith Georgianna Elliot," he spluttered, "What in Sam Hill is this?"
I winced; it was a letter from CLEAN Houston, an environmental group that had hosted an essay contest a while back; this letter communicated their acceptance of my essay for consideration, not necessarily that I was in cahoots or anything.
"Dad, it's not what you think—"
"Not what I think? Meredith, do you know what these people have done to us, what they've cost us? The least you could do is keep out of their way out of loyalty to this family! If I had known you would immediately go crawling to the one organization that is responsible for the sale of family lands in Houston, I would have never let you move there!"
"I didn't go crawling—"
"Yeah?" Ellie cut in, "I'll bet you flounced in with your head held high, is that it?"
"I would never—"
"No, you're right, you wouldn't!" Dad rejoined. "My own daughter, completely disregarding everything this family has worked for!"
"Dad, that's not true!"
"Let's face it, dad," Ellie sighed melodramatically, "Meredith has always been a rebel, even since her Academy days; remember how she managed to hook up with the one student in environmental studies at Upton?"
Her word cut me to the quick; studies aside, I had admired Fred Winston for his genuine concern for others, his earnestness and commitment to educating and equipping himself for a greater purpose than himself. Such a perspective was refreshing among the "legacy elite" students of Upton Academy who thought the world revolved around them. Now I was a rebel for liking him?
"Ah, yes, the scholarship kid," Dad's voice was laden with scorn. "The one who tried to undermine me by giving you all sorts of gadgets—"
"It was a PDA he'd built himself," I didn't have the strength to protest very loudly anymore. "Not that there would be anything wrong with a cell phone."
"You know good and well why I don't allow cell phones, Missy!" Dad snapped. "You've got no use for those things. Computers are meant for working at a desk, not frittering your time away. A generation that spends its time staring at a screen instead of interacting with each other and actually learning will be a generation of idiots!"
"Be it never said that the Elliots are idiots!" Ellie chimed in, with a pointed stare at me. I shook my head; only last week I had an earful from this same sister when Dad had refused to get her the same smartphone her friends had; now she was playing the good daughter.
That was the way of the skeptical Elliot household: Cell phones and personal computers were a waste of time; smartphones made you stupid; handheld electronics were a new form of cultural indoctrination; these were the arguments my dad regularly brought up, and nothing we ever said could dissuade him. When Cassie had married into the incredibly-connected Mangrove family, they had gotten her a cell phone, and it was her defiance that prompted the purchase of wireless handsets for the house on Mangrove Row. But since she was the first and only married daughter, and his only hope for grandchildren, Dad held his tongue. Under his own roof—and the others he owned—however, it was a different matter.
I stood, "I need to get on home," I said, clearing my plate from the table.
"Take your contraband with you," Dad nodded to the pile of emails on the table.
By the time I left, Dad and Ellie were back to talking about celebrities and fashion and gossip. I waved to Monica as I pulled away.

I pulled into the lot in front of my apartment, fully drained of any spark. I crept through the bookstore and up the stairs at the back to my tiny living space. It wasn't much, but it felt more like home than the sprawling mansion ever did.
I settled on my bed, but the memories of Fred were too much. I knew it would be a long time before I finally fell asleep.

Monday, April 29, 2013

"Merely Meredith: A Modern Persuasion" Excerpt--Introducing the Elliots

To find something that pleases one of the five senses is a marvel in itself; to find something that excites them all is nothing short of miraculous. I believe books are just such miracles: the weight of the author's hopes and dreams in your hand, the smell of carefully-preserved musings of some pensive soul, the words that call up scenes in the imagination to transform the eye and ear into extensions of the characters involved, surrounding the reader's mind with strange and wonderful circumstances—
Yes, I am a bit biased, I'll admit it. I work in a bookstore, so it is my job to have books in my hands all day long. I love every minute of it. Well, almost every minute.
About the worst part of my job concerns the short rack of books in front of me. Part memoir, part genealogy, all a bunch of fluff and hot air, I spend most of my day within sight of the newly-updated "How To Be Texan: A History Of The Elliot Oil Legacy," by none other than George Spencer Herbert Elliot III, the richest oil baron in Texas. Only one unfortunate circumstance: in this day and age, oil is not regarded as a precious commodity by the general public. Nobody cares if your family's oil fields produce most of the nation's exports. Particularly not in recent years; oil has been getting a particularly bad rap. That didn't stop Mr. Elliot from publishing his book; he seems to think that any idea that comes into his head is a noble one, and if he can see it through in spite of any efforts to dissuade him, he is the better man. (Better, hogwash!)
I cannot restrain a little frown every time unwitting people add that book to their stack. The title is in larger print than the subtitle, so they might think it's a unique guide for tourists, how to blend in with the culture. As if the Elliots were any example!
Feelings aside, I knew my job and performed it well. That's why Mr. Graham hired me—well, mostly. Sometimes I get the feeling he allowed me to work for him for another reason entirely. He knew my aversion to that particular book, but he understood that one couldn't help one's heritage.

Did I mention that George Herbert Spencer Elliot III is my father?

Indeed, the man who believed his forefathers all but founded Texas, the last oil baron of consequence in Beaumont (if not the nation)—this man is my father. George Elliot has three daughters. The oldest is Elaine, Dad's pride and joy. The next daughter of consequence would be the baby of the family, Cassandra; she was the only one of us fortunate enough to marry, and she did that well enough. Charlie Mangrove was a cattle rancher from Austin whom Dad met and liked at a convention somewhere. Charlie first acquainted himself with all the family, and Cassandra fell for him almost overnight. Dad felt that cattle-ranching was "Texan" enough to be acceptable, yet not too prestigious to make him uncomfortable around his son-in-law.
As for me, I'm just the middle child, nobody special, merely Meredith. Rather than try and outdo my sisters, I am content to remain in the background, doing my own thing, living my own life. My sisters don't mind; my attitude makes it easier for them as they contest each other for my father's good graces.

The flow of customers ebbed somewhat, and I caught sight of Mr. Graham's snowy white head bobbing between the shelves, deep in earnest discussion with one of the customers about a book she had chosen. I caught his eye and signaled that I had a question, not urgent. Mr. Graham winked in acknowledgement and finished with the customer before walking over to me.
"Yes, Miss Meredith," he responded politely, "what is it?"
Dear old Graham, always so polite to me! It had taken a while to convince him that it was totally fine to call me Meredith (mostly because "Miss Elliot" tended to spook the unsuspecting customers, particularly after the release of Dad's book), but he staunchly retained the "Miss." It was so delightfully down-home-Texas of him, I didn't insist on anything further.
Now I had a favor to ask of him.
"Mr. Graham, I know my shift doesn't end for a few hours yet," I began, "but I just needed to call home and—"
Mr. Graham smiled and nodded. "You go right ahead, Miss Meredith." He caught the attention of another girl to take my place. I slipped into the back office and dialed the number. It rang four times before someone picked up the receiver.

"Elliot Estates, who's calling, please?"
I sighed, "Hi Monica, it's Meredith."
"Oh!" my dad's housekeeper brightened with recognition. "Hi there, Meredith! What's going on, honey?"
"Oh, the usual," I replied. "Is Ellie there?"
"Yep, she's just sitting right here, reading her magazine. I'llhand the receiver to her, one sec."
"Thanks," I told her.

A few seconds later, a deliberately accented voice greeted me, "Hello, Meredith."
"Hi, Ellie," I tried to add as much warmth to my voice as I could, "How are things at the house?"
"Oh, just fine!" she drawled, "Daddy's been staying off my back since the Dior incident—"
"What Dior incident?"
"Never mind, it's all paid off now. Speaking of paying off, I think the Forthmans next door have a shark infestation. I've been hearing some strange noises coming—"
"Okay," I interrupted her, "Honestly, Elle, I don't care what the neighbors have in their pool—"
"Pool?" Ellie cried, "Of course I meant loan sharks, honey! Oh lordy," she tittered, "I think Houston's making you soft, sis!"
"Be that as it may," I endeavored to keep my sister on one topic, "How is Dad doing?"
Ellie grunted, "Fine, I guess. He's on the phone most of the time now. I don't know."
Knowing Ellie, that one comment was about as far as I was going to get. I tried another vein. "Have you heard from Cassie lately?"
Ellie sighed, "I've told Monica to take the calls from her. She only calls if she's ill or worried, anyway, and when she does, it's all about her, she won't even listen to me! Of course she never comes to visit, if she can help it. For that matter, neither do you, Mer. It's just me 'n daddy alone here at the house, but does anybody care? No! You both have your own grand lives, you don't give two pins—"
"Actually, that's why I called," I told my sister. "Would it be okay if I come to dinner?"
"Tonight? I guess; I mean, it's not like you would have something more important in Houston—"
"Right, that's why I'm asking," I deliberately ignored the jibe, "Just wanted to make sure it was okay."
"Well you don't have to get my permission for it! After all, you're one of The Family."
I could practically hear the capital letters when she said it. "Great; so when should I come?"
"Dinner's at six."
"I can make it; see you—" I heard the click of the receiver as Ellie hung up.

Such was life as the nondescript middle daughter of the Elliot family. I resumed my post and finished my shift. As the hours ticked down to three-thirty, the end of my workday, I had to concentrate to quell the twisting of my stomach. Not that I was afraid of my family; I would far rather dine in their company than alone. Truth be told, I had another reason for driving an hour and a half out to the Estate for dinner. I only hoped I could accomplish the one task before my father or sister noticed.

Two hours later, I walked into the house. Ellie waited for me, cool as a cat.
"Somebody's in trouble," she warned in a singsong voice.
I could hear Dad thumping around the office, and the printer clattering. It was a Tuesday, so he wouldn't be printing the reports yet; running the machine now could only mean one thing. I dove for the door while Ellie snickered.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

ReBible Series: "King of The Roses"--Introduction, By David Jordan

In the Pearl District of downtown Portland, Oregon, on Glisan Street, just west of Interstate 405, there is a kennel called Jordan’s Pets. Not all the animals inside have someone who claims them—well, somebody besides Abbi Jordan, I mean.

If there was one thing that could be said about Abbi Jordan, it was that she loved animals. Even through high school, she made it her personal mission to become as close to a veterinary doctor as she could manage, and she made it through the medical program at the community college in record time. She called Jordan’s Pets her “practice,” even though it was just a building Dad bought across the street so she wouldn’t keep bringing strays into the house. The neighbors didn’t mind having a “pet library” at their disposal, either. 

It was ingenious the way Abbi figured it out: customers wanting a pet could “rent” it if they didn’t want to keep it forever, and bring it back whenever they didn’t want it any more. If they chose, they could purchase the pet outright, and Abbi had a “physic package” in addition to the price of the animal, where she would perform all the necessary checkups and medical inoculations, and the critter would be ready to go. Either way, she was earning money, and enjoying what she loved most: finding good homes for strays.

It didn’t matter if they were missing a limb or a tail—she even took in a mangy tabby that had lost its eye in a fight—she would bring it in, clean it up, nurse it back to health, and let it stay till somebody came along and decided they wanted it. Very often, the strays were so mangled that no one did, so they became permanent residents of Jordan’s Pets. There were about fifty such residents as of June, 2005.

I know what you’re thinking: she’s crazy, right? How can one 24-year-old take care of not only other people’s animals, but the strays off the streets, too? The answer is simple: she’s got an assistant on speed dial. Whenever she needs help, all she needs to do is hit a button on her cell phone, and I come running.

That’s right; I’m her assistant. I’m also her little brother, David. That’s why I run.

At sporadic times during the day, I’d get a call, something like, “David! I’m swamped over here! Could you lend a hand?” and I’d go down and help her, like, de-worm a cat, or help a whelping bitch (that’s really what it’s called!) or feed the varying animal population in the kennel. My daily job is walking the six dogs she had.

There was Mash, a skinny, brown boxer with no tail and plenty of energy. He was usually regarded as the Alpha of the six. Three dogs had all been found in the same block, on the same weekend: a chocolate Lab with so many battle-wounds and scars that his ears stuck out funny, a fluffy charcoal-colored poodle with a broken leg, and a tiny Chihuahua somebody had tried to tie up in a garbage bag, but who had managed to at least get his body out by scratching the plastic with his paws till it gave way. Abbi found him in the alley behind the pub on 17th Street with the bag on his head, too scared to move. When she took it off, he immediately started licking her as if he thought she was the most wonderful human in the world. He followed the other two with his own little doggie version of blind, stupid devotion. Abbi named them Larry (the Lab), Curly (the poodle), and Moe (the Chihuahua), and the kennel officially had its own Three Stooges. The other two dogs belonged to residents on our block: the shaggy Golden Retriever named Jade belonged to Mrs. O’Malley, who lived in the pink house facing Hoyt Street. Last of all was a beat-up old Rottweiler named Razor. He was Sulley’s dog, back when they called him Big Sulley, instead of Mad Sulley.

Abbi fed them while they stayed at the kennel, but every day after four hours of online school (some academy my dad signed us all up for to get us through grade school; he said it worked better, but I suspect it was because he didn’t want to have to deal with the public school system in our area), I’d go down to the kennel and pick up the dogs, taking them down Hoyt Street all the way to Couch Park, where I’d let them loose and pull stuff out of the backpack of dog toys I always brought with me. Jade loved to catch the Frisbee; she had this odd habit of continually running ahead of the Frisbee, just so she could turn around and nip it at the last second, and look beautiful doing it.

The Stooges were all digging dogs, and they preferred sticks to balls or discs. They were always bringing me branches to throw. Poor Moe never quite seemed to realize his size, so the branches he went after were always too big for him. He’d be a light-gold speck in the sea of green grass, trying his hardest to so much as drag a dead branch easily four feet long and so thick he could barely get his jaws around it. That made me laugh every time, and I’d run out there and “help” him by letting him fetch smaller sticks.

Mash was a chaser. He would chase little kids, balls, kites, squirrels, cats, other dogs—anything that moved warranted his attention until he was so tired he flopped down under a tree, panting heavily. Even then, he remained on the alert, and the instant something else moved, Mash was up and running again.

About the only dog that wouldn’t do anything was Razor. I guess he was Sulley’s intimidation tactic. He had all these scars around his mouth and his shoulders, like a fighting dog, but for Razor, it seemed, the fighting days were over. They’d probably been over since Old Sam moved into the yellow house on the corner of Glisan and 18th. (Greg says that Sulley was a ganglord before Old Sam came along, and he'd sic Razor on anyone who wouldn't do what he said; I don't know much about it, since I was really young when Big Sulley snapped, and no one really talks about it anymore.) 
Anyway, nowadays he was the one who just sat next to me, watching everything, but not moving a muscle. If we stayed at the park long enough, and if the other dogs left him alone for long enough, I could usually coax him to at least lay next to me as I sat against a tree, and once he even put his head on my lap. Of course, when that happened, the moment lasted only a few seconds before Curly ran up with a ball in his mouth. The other dogs made Razor irritable; not mad—he wouldn’t attack them—he’d just sit there and growl at them. It was enough, though; none of the other dogs wanted to risk finding out if Razor would chase them. Well, everyone, that is, except Moe. Moe never seemed to understand anything, much less the savage growls of an angry old Rottweiler, and he had unquenchable faith in every dog’s willingness to play with him. One bite and a snap from Razor, though, and Moe wouldn’t even come at me from the front. I’d either have to move away from Razor, or I’d hear feverish panting coming from behind me, as Moe was trying to be as stealthy as possible.

Most of the time, though, Razor would just sit. I’d try to get him to get up, walk around with me, but he’d only come when I walked out of his sight. Then he’d stalk over to where he last saw me, and sit again, his triangular ears stooped with age, and his eyes keen as ever. I spent much of my afternoons this way, and I loved every minute of it.

Usually after I’d been at the park only a couple hours or so, my cell phone would ring again, this time with a message from Johnny, Sulley’s son and my best friend.

“Come quick,” Johnny would say, and I could hear Sulley screaming his head off in the background, “he’s bad, and getting worse.”

“I’ll be right over,” and with that I would round up all the dogs (I’d trained them to not only come when I whistled, but bring their toys as well), and take them back to the Kennel, and then it was off to Johnny’s house, the big green-grey-colored mansion on the corner of 18th and Hoyt.

I’d always have to come in the back door, because Sulley would be in the front room with a shot gun, screaming out curses and threats to the demons in his head. Johnny would point me to the music room and then disappear to the basement.

In the music room was the key to maintaining Sulley’s sanity: the piano. I would thank God for the piano lessons Dad made me take as a young kid, because now it was the only thing that helped keep Sulley out of the sanitarium. I played music until I heard his shouting stop, and then I’d hear his shuffling, creaking step behind me. I tried not to look over my shoulder as I continued to play, because I always saw the barrel of the shotgun first, before Sulley approached the doorway. He’d stand there, watching me, fury etched on his wrinkled, sagging face, then as I continued to play, he would slowly creep into the room, heading for an armchair next to the piano. I played him into the armchair, and I would keep on playing until I heard him snore. Once Sulley was asleep, I was free to go home without fear of any more fits for at least the next eight hours. After that it was anybody’s guess: three in the morning, five, eight—only once had he ever had another fit as soon as he was conscious, and I think that was because somebody’s car backfired at about one AM, so I got the call to come play again.

I spent much of my evenings this way, and it scared me every time.


Saturday, April 27, 2013

Serial Saturday: "A Writer's Tale", Part 5

He leaped up from the table and grabbed my hand as we dashed down the aisle toward the door. To my horror, it was slowly sliding shut. We reached it just as it lowered the last three centimeters. The room went completely dark.
            When the lights returned, we saw all the droids sprawled on the floor, deactivated. The doors were still tightly shut.
            “Wh-what happened?” I stammered.
            “That explosion must have struck something large, to send the whole ship into lockdown,” Marks explained, allowing me to cling closely to him. He glanced around the room until he spotted a security panel.
            “Ah!” he stood and ran over to it. He tried to activate it with his keycard, but it only showed what we already knew: that the whole ship was in lockdown. Marks tried to navigate further, but a pass-code screen prevented him.
            “Blast,” he slammed the side of the panel in frustration, “I don’t have clearance for anything further.”
            I looked around the mess hall. I spotted a familiar head of bright-blonde hair just behind the counter.
            “Hey!” I cried, running over. Sure enough, the head belonged to Cher the android. The rocking of the explosion had brought down a heavy stack of trays on top of her, deactivating her. “Cher would know the clearance code; can you reactivate her?”
            Marks frowned, “She’s nothing but an android; leave her as she is. I can figure this out on my own.” He turned and kept muttering to himself, but I distinctly heard the phrases should never be that smartanything better than a machine…won’t be replaced.
            “Marks?” I said softly as he tried countless algorithms to no avail. He ignored me. “Marks,” I persisted, “I don’t doubt that you have the ability to do this; we just don’t have time to wait for you to figure it out, and we have someone here who knows what we need.”
            “It’s not a someone, it’s a something!” He exploded at me. “All it knows is what we tell it and program it to do!”
            “And one of those programs can get us into those security screens!”
            Marks sighed heavily, “All right, I’ll do it,” he grumbled. He raised Cher’s head and fumbled with something at the base of her neck. Her eyes lit up, and she immediately got to her feet.
            How may I be of service?” she asked.
            Marks would not speak to her, so I did. “Cher, we need the clearance code to see all security footage for the rest of the ship, to know where the blast came from and how bad the damage is.”
            Certainly,” she replied, and entered the code without hesitation. Marks immediately pushed her aside and scrolled through the screens.
            “Oh no,” he said, “The blast hit the communications wing hardest of all, and the supply bay.”
            “What does that mean?” I asked, fearing the worst.
            Marks confirmed it. “It means that all the supplies available to us on the ship are here in this mess hall, and there is no way to communicate with the rest of the ship.”
            Cher spoke up, “Communications offline; cannot connect to or locate any commanding officer.”
Marks rolled his eyes, “You don’t say, Tin Lady?”
            Meanwhile, I had come across a screen that sent a chill through my bones. “Marks…” he joined me at the screen.
            Barabbians were filing out of the supply bay, and leading them was the severe, impeccable Captain Gayle herself!
            “The turncoat!” Marks hissed. “She’s headed for the bridge! We’ve got to warn the Commander!”
            “But how?” I asked.
            Marks looked all around the room. He pointed down to a large square vent at the base of the wall. “The ventilation ducts, that will get me close enough to the supply dock to be able to repair the communications breach so we can warn the commander.”
            “You?” I asked, “Well, then what do we do?”
            Marks glanced between Cher and me. “You two need to figure out how to lift the lockdown and stop the aliens for as long as you can. Don’t let them get to the commander before I do!”
            He lifted the grate off the duct and prepared to go in.
            “Marks!” I called down the duct after him. His head reappeared, already covered in dust. “Good luck!”
            “Thanks,” he whispered back, “you too!”
            Now that Marks was gone, I turned to Cher. “Cher, can you lift the lockdown on everywhere but the bridge?”
            Cher approached the security panel and stared hard at it. Minutes later, the doors to the mess hall hissed open. “Security Lockdown Lifted,” Cher announced.
            I raced down the hall to where I had seen the map. I saw several people walk out of their berths very disoriented; no one seemed to be able to figure out what happened. I pointed the pathway to the bridge out to Cher. “Cher, you need to seal off that hallway; Captain Gayle must not get through there,” I traced out a pathway from that point back to where we stood, “But she must not get anywhere else in the ship except where we can get at her.”
            My processors deduce that the most optimal course for the plan you suggest would be this one here,” Cher caused a pathway to light up.
            I nodded, “It looks good, do it.”
            “Hey!” an officer called to me, “Do you have any idea what happened?”
             “Yeah!” I hollered back, “Alien invasion! We have a detachment of Barabbians on this ship, and they’re headed for the bridge! We’ve got to stop them!”
            I dashed down the hallway Cher had marked out for us, “Follow me!” I called to the officers on board.

            Cher proved an admirable strategist. We flanked the Barabbian invaders and took them completely by surprise. I let those with weapons sweep past me. The Barabbians fell upon them, hissing and clawing, but the Phantessan soldiers were brave souls. They would not back down, no matter how many wounds they sustained. The determination of the soldiers and the brute force of their onslaught soon decimated the invading horde. The ship was saved! I looked over the mass of mangled red bodies in the corridor. Not one of them was Captain Gayle. Where did she go?
Cher seized my arm and pulled me into an alcove on the side.
            Incoming message from Commander Gerald,” she told me.
            “Incoming message?” I gasped, “That’s great! It means Marks fixed the breach!”
            Cher began speaking in the commander’s voice, “Who is out there? Who is with Cher? Hello?”
            “Hello, Commander,” I called back, “It’s me, Laura.”
            “Laura! Is it true? Captain Gayle is a traitor?”
            “It appears so, Commander. She’s the one who set off the explosion, sir.”
            I cannot believe it! Why, here she is now, with some Barabbian prisoners.”
            I grabbed Cher’s hand, forgetting how useless that was, “No, wait! Don’t let her—“
            Too late; I heard Captain Gayle’s silvery cold voice over Cher’s broadcast systems.
            “Commander, I am so glad you are safe.”
            “You are?” He sounded dubious, “Well, I’m glad to hear it. What have you here?”
            “These are all that remain of the invaders, Commander. They were the ones to set the charges that allowed their forces to teleport onto our ship. I trust the exterior defenses are still active?”
            My mind raced. If the exterior defenses were still active, that meant that Gayle could then claim command of the whole Phantessan fleet, and not even our own weaponry could stop her! I dragged Cher with me down the hallway to the bridge.
            “They are,” Commander Gerald replied. “It is a relief to me to see you still loyal to Phantessa, Captain.
            “Relief? You speak as if you had reason to doubt me, Commander.” Her voice sharpened, and I put on an extra burst of speed. We were just down the hallway from the bridge.
            “Well, yes, as a matter of fact, that new girl, Laura, seemed to think that you were the one heading up this operation.”
            We reached the bridge just in time to hear Captain Gayle announce, “Sir, such an accusation is totally false.”
            Cher left my side and strode boldly in front of the commander’s desk.
            Accessing archived footage,” she announced in that same bland, even tone she always used, “Security camera, Supply Dock.”
            I saw Gayle’s jaw tighten. Commander Gerald watched with interest as a Barabbian wearing a Phantessan uniform snuck into the supply dock and very distinctly set explosives. Then the Barabbian did a very curious thing: it slipped on a pair of gloves and a mask with a wig attached. When it turned around, there was Captain Gayle!
            Commander Gerald leaped to his feet as Gayle the Barabbian ripped her mask of and hissed at him, her hideous forked tongue flickering out of a red, scaly mouth. The Barabbian “prisoners” immediately drew their weapons, having only pretended to be bound.
            Just then, a body dropped from a vent in the ceiling and landed on one of the Barabbians. It was Marks! He wrestled the weapon away from the alien, while Cher employed a truly astonishing arsenal of weapons from within her android’s body to dispatch the other. Marks was able to dodge the claws of the Barabbian, and attempted to use its own gun against it. That’s when things started to go terribly wrong. The laser bolts had no effect on the hard exoskeleton of the Barabbian. Some bolts bounced off harmlessly and ended up striking different surfaces around the room, while others absorbed straight into the alien’s skin. Marks had to fight the alien by hand, but by his resourcefulness he was able to finally overpower his adversary. But the fight was not over yet. The three of us turned to confront Gayle, but she already had her claws around the neck of Commander Gerald.
            “Fools!” she rasped, “You thought you could get the better of me, but you’ve just made your last and most fatal mistake! No one can outsmart me! Make one wrong move, and the commander dies!”

            I could have kicked myself. Didn’t I see this coming? Didn’t I always see this coming in every novel I'd read and movie I’d ever watched where this scenario happened? The good guys overpower all the bad guys except one, and that’s the one that gets his hands on the good guy leader, or someone equally as valuable, and the good guys are forced to surrender in order to save their Most Valuable Participant. Here I was, in full control of my own actions, and I had fallen into that same stupid trap! I remembered the typewriter and the Door, and dimly I wondered who in fact was writing this particular adventure. If I was the writer, I knew what I would do. I wondered if saying anything would inspire the author with my good ideas of getting out of this.
            “There has to be some way of getting past those hard scales,” I whispered under my breath, “Like it’s some sort of body armor, and she can be vulnerable underneath.”
            Marks glanced over to me. “Whom are you talking to?” he whispered.
            But under his voice, my ears had caught another noise: the sound of skin pulling away from a shell. I knew it was now or never. With a loud cry, I leaped over the commander’s console, my hands outstretched toward Gayle’s face. I wrapped my fingers around the edges of her scaly face, and ripped the hard, red exoskeleton clean off!
            No!” she screamed, but in protecting her head, she had released the commander. He swiftly restrained her claws and pointed a gun at her.
            “Vermin traitor,” he barked at her, “You are mine!” He aimed the laser pistol at her head and blew a hole in it.

            We all stood around the carcass, staring at the light pink skin of her head, strange-looking now without the red shell.
            Commander Gerald gazed at me in awe, “How did you know that her…scales would come off like that?”
            I only shook my head in response; I wasn’t even sure how it had happened, how did I expect to explain it to anyone else?
            “You know,” the commander continued, “For a simple diplomat’s companion, you are a surprisingly brilliant strategist. You have not only saved my life, but you saved the entire Phantessan fleet as well.” He gestured out the window, where I saw that the Phantessan ships were now gaining leeway in the Barabbian invasion. As we watched, the Phantessan ships repelled the Barabbian forces, and the enormous mother ship recalled all the remaining fighters and began an ignominious retreat.
            Commander Gerald turned to Cher, “Sound the alert,” he said, “Notify all ships, return to the station. The Barabbians have gone, our work is done.” He grinned at me and clapped me on the shoulder, “For your bravery and quick thinking, when we get back to Phantessa, whatever you want is yours.”
            “I’m not the only one, sir,” I said, noticing that Marks hung back, glowering at the attention I received. “None of my actions would have been possible if Private Marks had not accessed the security panels, and then had the presence of mind to repair the communication lines damaged by the blast.”
            From the look Commander Gerald gave Marks, he probably did not even realize such a man was on his ship. For a commander of such high standing, I mused, he was surprisingly self-absorbed.
            “Is that so?” He exclaimed, “Well then, you’ll have to put in a request as well, young man. There is nothing too small to thank you for what you have done.”
            Marks respectfully ducked his head as he shook the commander’s hand.
            “Cher, too,” I continued; I would show this arrogant commander a thing or two about recognizing those under him! “She was the most helpful in letting us into the security feed, lifting the lockdown, and closing off the hallways to protect you.”
            By now, Commander Gerald was turning almost as red as a Barabbian himself. I could tell that, though he might bestow honors upon a simple private, perhaps I had crossed a line seeking compensation for a lowly android. I had thought that Marks’ aversion to Cher was borne out of fear that he thought someone as insignificant as he might be replaced, but now I saw that the fear of machines pervaded the entire human race in this universe.
            “Very well,” Commander Gerald reluctantly acquiesced, “I shall see about procuring recognition for the android.” He deliberately avoided addressing her by name, but I did not press the matter. Cher nudged my shoulder gratefully.
            As embarrassing as such an act was, it may be confessed at this juncture that I vainly tried to stifle a yawn. I hadn’t had a break for some time, and after the entire escapade of running and the fighting and the pumping adrenaline, I was tired!
            Commander Gerald dismissed us to our berths. As Marks and I strolled down the hallways and through the various docks and bays, officers at every point stood and either saluted or applauded us. We were heroes, through and through!
            Marks nudged me when we reached the hallway of berths.
            “I still can’t figure out how Captain Gayle could have been on this ship for so long without anyone realizing that she wasn’t human.”
            I grunted, “Well, you said yourself when we first met, the security-bots can’t see through clothing. All she had to do was put on a uniform and cover her exposed hands and face with skin-like material, and the security-bots would be none the wiser; certainly if the robots did not register, no one else would suspect, either.”
            We reached my berth first. Marks paused.
            “Laura,” he stammered, “I want to say… thank you—for showing me how important it is to recognize skill in everyone, and not to depend too much on my own abilities.”
            I smiled, “You’re welcome.” I slid my keycard over the scanner and opened my door.
            “See you on Phantessa,” Marks called, walking off to his room.
            For some reason, I did not reply. Maybe I was too tired. At any rate, I had only just laid down on the bed, when a gentle chime sounded.
            Arriving in the dock of Port Arriva, Phantessa,” A voice not unlike Cher’s announced. “Ambassador Laura, please proceed to the bridge.”
            I stood with a groan. Was I ever going to get any rest any more? I stumbled out of my berth. The hallways were strangely empty. Where had everyone gone? Was I the last person off the ship? I had always been under the impression that the trip to Phantessa would be longer than just a few minutes. Perhaps not; perhaps the space station had been orbiting the home planet this entire time, and it was only a matter of re-entering the planet’s atmosphere.
            I saw Cher waiting for me in a hallway on my way to the bridge.
            Come this way, Laura,” she instructed. I followed her to a wide-open space, very much like a loading dock. I could see daylight out the window of a door at the end of a long tunnel and a ramp.
            I glanced at Cher, “Down there?” I asked.
            “Yes,” she replied, “Commander Gerald wishes to speak with you.”
            I wondered what the commander could have to say to me now. I marched down the ramp. When I reached the door, I couldn’t find a handle. This was too much; I was thoroughly fed up with all this futuristic technology. There wasn’t even a scanner to swipe my keycard! Frustrated, I placed a hand on its smooth surface and pushed as hard as I could. It gave way immediately at my touch, and there was such a blast of wind and dust that I was forced to close my eyes and cover my face.
            When I opened them again, my first glimpse of Phantessa almost looked like a Texas wasteland.