What the Dickens
By David Castlewitz
Even when she annoyed him, August Fingerhut couldn’t stay angry with Maise Kendall. As Mr. Dickens’ typist, August sat astride an industry that would spawn new avenues to success and riches. Most people read the great writer’s work in book form, or discovered him in newspaper serials, but it was the Talker – a machine of vast potential – that would revolutionize the entertainment favored by millions.
“Daddy will never approve our marrying if you don’t come up in the world,” Maise whined from where she sat in a high-backed parlor chair, her face to the wall. August made her face away from his desk because the twinkle of her blue eyes, the dimples in her cheeks, and her heart shaped red lips distracted him.
Miss Poole, Maise’ maid, sitting on a padded bench next to the chair, lifted her dark eyes from the needlework on her lap, lifted her narrow face, and flicked a stray lock of auburn hair from her cheek. August couldn’t help but notice Poole’s raised skirt, which revealed a delicate, brown stocking-encased ankle.
He forced himself to glare at Maise’ back and the large white collar spanning her shoulders.
“I’ve seven more pages,” he said. “Then we’ll have our morning walk.”
“It’s nearly noon, Auggie! We’re to picnic with the Heathmores.” Maise sobbed, shoulders rising and falling, the bun of hair at the back of her head threatening to burst its knitted braids.
August turned to the typing machine and the piles of papers and stencils on his narrow desktop. If Maise hadn’t kept him at supper past midnight, he would’ve been up early as usual and there’d not be seven pages yet to go. And that was seven pages of tightly spaced script in Dickens’ own hand. He’d need to type a dozen stencils or more to feed the Talker.
He glanced over his shoulder at the door to his third floor workroom. Albert Cunningworth from Talks, Ltd. would barge in at any moment. August pictured that awkward and skinny man trudging up the back steps and the thought gave pause to his fingers poised above the typing machine’s ivory-inlaid keys.
With a loud sigh, he banished these distractions -- Albert’s impending arrival, Maise’s whines and Miss Poole’s ankle – and struck one key after the other, deftly completing a full paragraph with a single intake of breath. The thick stencil flapped about as it advanced against the rubber roller, its bright white face full of the pin-pricks, squiggly bumps and shallow valleys produced by the typing machine.
This stencil, when fed to the Talker, would generate a voice. Not Mr. Dickens’ voice, though the company’s advertisements led consumers to believe otherwise. But, rather, a flat and monotonous voice, though wall posters made it seem like the machine emitted a melodic and pleasing verbal rendition as full of bombast and significance as Dickens’ staged readings.
Still, August told himself, even a mechanical voice devoid of inflection was a star attraction in any home. Linked by belts and wheels and cogs to an underground assembly of gears and pinions and rollers, Talkers graced many of the city’s homes. Magazine ads showed happy families sitting around a tall and narrow closet, the children enraptured by the story seeping from the sounding boards, Fathers attentive to every word and Mothers relaxed and smiling and mending clothes while listening.
“When does Mr. Dickens return?” Maise asked.
“He’s aboard ship now, my dear. So, any day now, I presume.”
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if he could tell us? From aboard ship? Send a message, I mean.”
August snickered. “And how would that be?”
“A telegraph connected some way or other to the Talker.”
“How does a ship at sea connect to the telegraph cable?”
“They’d have to build something. Stations in the ocean, I think. Where ships could dock and important men like Mr. Dickens could send their messages. Then we’d hear it from the machine.”
August didn’t comment. As usual, Maise had no comprehension of technology, no appreciation for how these machines worked. Diligently, he typed, completing a handwritten page and another stencil.
The door swung open, the space filled by the housekeeper’s bulk. “Mr. Albert’s here for you,” she shouted.
“I can hear. No need to yell.”
“Y’not hear me over the noise of that typing machine.”
Albert squeezed past the housekeeper, his beanpole-of-a-body twist-turning snake-like through the space between the woman and the door frame. Hands in the pockets of his stiff overalls, a leather case tucked against his side, his whiskered face broke into a smile directed at Miss Poole.
“You got them stencils ready, Mr. August?”
Albert grinned as he lowered himself to the padded bench, not too close to Miss Poole, but near enough that he engaged her in whispered conversation.
August typed a few lines without looking up. He continued onto another stencil, his long neck bent, his sleeves turned up at the wrists and his stiff collar askew. His jacket lay across the back of his chair and he pictured Mr. Dickens looking askance at such improper attire.
“And wouldn’t it be magical,” Maise blurted, “if we could talk to that machine and send messages back?”
August kept his silence. Why, he wondered, would anyone want to talk back and forth by way of a machine? Why would anyone sit and listen to stories told by bouncing pins and padded hammers making artificial sound? How was any of this a viable future?
Don’t doubt, he told himself. Just type the stencils.
And quickly. So he could send Albert on his way and spend the afternoon with Maise, even if she had outlandish ideas and ankles not as well-turned as her maid’s.
- - -
After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, I have turned to my first love: SF and fantasy. I have published several stories in Weirdyear, Farther Stars Than These, Fast Forward Festival, Encounters and other online as well as print magazines. Search the web and you’ll even find some of my earlier military history articles. My longer work can be found at https://www.amazon.com/author/davidcastlewitz
Thursday, December 25, 2014
What the Dickens
Thursday, December 18, 2014
By Anthony Redgrave
Solomon Hewitt picked at his fingernails. If he looked up at her, he forgot that she was a robot. “So your fee charges to the room, huh?”
“Correct. Before we continue, I must inform you that our session is being remotely monitored for quality control purposes. Is this acceptable?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
“Excellent, Mister Hewitt. I see you’ve chosen a room with double beds. May I ask if you’ve read the list of our other available services?”
He rubbed the pale indent around the base of his ring finger. “Are those other available services remotely monitored as well?”
“For quality control purposes, yes.”
“Then, no. I’m not interested.” He glanced up. She showed no expression.
“Very well then.” She brushed a hand against her teased and frosted bouffant. The motion was unmistakably deliberate. “My designation is ‘Cindy’. I have been assigned to your case. I will be responsible for all contact with you and your trouble. Will you please confirm her name?”
Solomon shifted on the padded vinyl bench. His pulse quickened. “Lily Hewitt.”
“And her home address?”
He turned his head to the sliding glass door, but his eyes drifted toward her. “Same as mine.”
Cindy nodded. Solomon noticed she wasn’t taking notes. “Please summarize your motivation for contacting Troubleshooters regarding Mrs. Hewitt.”
“Please, don’t call her Mrs. Hewitt.”
Cindy’s silicone brow wrinkled between her fiberglass eyes. Her head angled a few degrees to the left. “For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, Mr. Hewitt, I will accept that statement as sufficient.” She resumed her neutral pose. “Please tell me any details you have of Lily’s regular habits, including places she frequents and any times during which she is most likely to be-ee-ee. Eee.”
Cindy’s mouth remained open with her lips taut. Solomon watched her eyes for a moment. He counted the seconds to himself. Her precisely timed blinking had stopped. “Cindy?”
A short stab of radio static sounded from her frozen mouth. A man’s voice spoke with the snowy quality of an old recording. “We are sorry. This unit is experiencing technical difficulties. Remain where you are and a support technician will arrive shortly to diagnose and repair the problem. You are not being billed at this time. Thank you for choosing Troubleshooters!”
Solomon’s mouth also gaped. For a time, he was as still as Cindy. He then sprang up from the bench, staggered past the sliding glass doors, and fumbled with the phone receiver. It slipped from his hands as quickly as he had picked it up. Immediately he changed his tactics and dragged his suitcase from beneath the bed. His eyes darted this way and that, scanning for any identifying personal belongings that were not packed. The recorded message repeated itself again and again while Solomon zipped his black nylon carry-on with shaking hands.
When the zipper was pulled closed, the room was silent.
Solomon held his breath and listened. The message did not repeat - only faint radio static remained. A shuffling of unseen objects made a dissonant staccato. “Mr. Hewitt?”
Solomon fell backwards onto the single bed beside his suitcase. “Y-yes?”
“Hello, Mr. Hewitt. This is Phil from Troubleshooters technical support. Your Cindy unit sent us an automated crash report. We are sending a technician out to you, but it seems Cindy’s GPS is down as well. What is your current location?”
“The Economy Inn. Hyde Street.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hewitt. We have a technician on the way. He’ll be there in about five minutes. We’ll have Cindy back online in no time. Thank you for choosing Troubleshooters.” The receiver clicked, and a dial tone took the place of the static.
Cindy sat there, inanimate, making a persistent beep-beep-beep sound. The tempo of the beeping was just slightly out of time with the ticking of the second hand on the wall clock. He ground his teeth until his jaw ached.
After a time, a knock at the door broke his concentration on the ambient sounds of the room. “Mr. Hewitt? Phil sent me out.”
Solomon staggered his way to the door, dizzy from hyperventilating. “Yeah, come on in. She’s on the patio.”
“Yeah, I know.” The technician sat his tool kit on the carpet between the twin beds. He popped the latch with a metallic clank. The hinge of the lid squealed. “Good work, Cindy. I can take it from here.”
Solomon wheeled around to where Cindy sat beyond the glass door. She had stopped beeping. She stood, brushed back her teased bouffant, and turned to face him. “It was a pleasure working with you, Mr. Hewitt, but according to our policy regarding conflict of interest, the party who was the first to contact us has priority. You have, however, made our work significantly easier. As such, Mrs. Hewitt will be receiving our services at a significantly reduced rate.”
Solomon covered his face with his palm and groaned. “Oh, god.”
The technician stood from where he knelt by his tool kit, and held a revolver’s barrel level to Solomon’s eyes. “Our client has requested personal feedback, if any, from her trouble. If you have any final statements for Mrs. Hewitt, please record them at the tone.”
“Well played, bitch. I did say that we were too much alike, after all.”
“Your statement has been recorded and will be delivered to Mrs. Hewitt upon conclusion of the assignment.”
“Thank you for choosing Troubleshooters,” Cindy said.
- - -
Thursday, December 11, 2014
By Cyn Bermudez
“I don’t think there’s anything we can do,” George said, his face contorted.
“Have you tried … pulling one out?” I hovered over one of the little creatures whose mangled body had fused to the metal handle of my cupboard; a magnifying glass leaned out of my pocket. I took one last drink, swishing the coffee in my mouth, its bitterness like splintered wood, the cup rattling against my teeth. An unknown horror had invaded my home. Burnt flesh assaulted my nose.
“Of course,” he said. “What … what are they?”
These beings, these creatures—amalgamated pockets of flesh and metal: tiny beasts with large black eyes, grayish skin littered with small pores. Rows of sharpened teeth lined their mouths. They cried out with shrill voices; their bodies melded into handles and hinges, and every scrap of metal found in every corner of my home.
“I don’t know what they are,” I said. “But we can’t leave them like this.”
I had seen strange and unimaginable things when held by the current, as if I had stood outside of time. Three versions of me had walked and talked in unison: me fumbling with my experiment, minutes before my shoulder was struck, another version of me trapped in my machine—in electrical current, and a version of me conversing with George as he took stock of the many creatures that adorned my home, their bodies fused twistedly. Past, present, and future unfolding at once.
“What do you propose?” The lines on George's face creased more deeply when he was worried. His wrinkled skin collapsed into deeper grooves that fell from his face.
“What happened brought them here,” I said. “Maybe we can undo it, send these poor creatures back to where ever they came from.”
“Using the machine never resulted in this.”
“This time it was different. Something new in the mix.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
“Clearly, my presence within the workings of the machine allowed for some kind of portal to open, a doorway between worlds, between universes.
“We’ll repeat the same steps.”
“You could die, Nik.”
“I won’t die. Simply turn off the current at the right time. Like you did before.”
“How can you be sure that it’ll work?”
“I’m not sure, but we must try. We can’t leave these … things like this. Look at them. They’re in agony.”
George contemplated my words in silence, as he always did, and he relented.
We duplicated the experiment, and I was struck on the shoulder once more. I felt my very essence split into three—three versions of me commingled with a disjointed physical reality: George and myself and the creatures, another of me that was held three feet in the air by the current, and yet another in a silent darkness that quieted my home. My mind no longer belonged to the layers of this world. I sat behind a veil of bottled lightning and watched a play of life on the most peculiar stage.
George turned off the current before my heart gave out, and I fell to the ground.
“It worked,” George said.
“I know. I saw it. I saw the future—I saw the creatures were gone.” My voice was soft, my throat parched. My body hurt worse than the first time, but it had worked! We were filled with joy. My home was empty, normal once again.
“Let’s be more careful in the future,” George said.
“Yes, yes. I know."
“Do you think the creatures are safe now? Home, like you said?”
“I truly hope so.”
Later that evening, I sat with my coffee in the dark. That’s when I saw them; I saw their faces. Moonlight through an open window revealed what artificial light could not. The creatures weren’t gone, not really; they had merged completely with various parts of my home—metal and wood! Aberrant faces, flattened and frozen in knobs and walls and floors. Black and tormented eyes stared at me. Portends of my vision of the future became clear. A deep shadow fell over my home and I wept.
- - -
Cyn Bermudez is an author, physics and astronomy nerd, and comic con enthusiast. Her work is published in Vines Literary Journal, Fiction Vortex,The Red Line, The Milo Review, and Hemingway’s Playpen.
Thursday, December 4, 2014
The Alien Chooses a Body
By Brenda Anderson
The prisoner expected no mercy. Blanketed in neon pink particles, Purry waited for the guards to unlock the door and escort her from the Alien Holding Cell to the mortuary.
She studied the bodies: a young girl and a kangaroo, arranged side by side on the mortuary bench. Which part of which body would she choose? The rest of her life depended on this decision. All captured aliens had to pass the citizenship test or be deported. She’d lived invisibly on Earth for one glorious year, loving every minute of her freedom. No question, she had to pass this test. Where she came from, everyone lived in lockup.
Concentrate, she told herself. Young girl. Kangaroo. Which sections would work better together? The moment she made a decision, Human Resources would connect the two and issue her the combination. Purry thought hard, pointed to the bottom half of the kangaroo and the top half of the young girl. Human Resources connected them, photographed her transition into the new body and tagged it.
Next, speech. Alien candidates were issued one sentence, the question, ‘Will You Be My Friend?’ If, in 24 hours, she had not used that sentence to acquire a friend and ergo demonstrate humanity, she’d be put on the next shuttle from Earth. Purry shook her head. Not an option. She flexed her new, powerful legs, stretched her arms and exulted. The kangaroo pouch wasn’t so bad, either. A girl needed a handbag.
The timer on the wall flashed. Her 24 hours had begun.
Purry hopped outside. The carpark’s boom gates were down. She sped up, jumped and landed on the other side. Ha! This was fun. Now to use that sentence. She headed to the nearest shopping mall. A fast food outlet would supply friends. Humans were sociable creatures.
Seated at outdoor tables, people ate and checked their phones. No-one noticed her, except a small boy who cried out, “Mum!” The woman next to him looked up, and her face turned white. “Jesse, no! Can’t you see? She’s …” She whispered something in his ear. The boy gave her a horrified look and hid behind his mother. Purry’s heart constricted. They didn’t want her.
One by one she approached an old lady, a few young men and a child, and repeated her question. No-one wanted to be her friend. Animal welfare activists, drunks, beggars, addicts, cops, criminals and lawyers didn’t, either. She checked a clock. Two hours remained. What else could she do?
She got half way across the freeway. In the distance a large road train thundered towards her. The median strip beneath her feet shook. Up ahead, an SUV swerved into the path of the truck, flipped over and rolled onto the strip. She leapt towards it. The passenger door of the SUV swung open and as she thudded up, a woman fell out. High pitched noises came from inside the front seat. She bent down. Strapped in its car seat, a baby screamed. Purry reached in, undid the seatbelt and lifted the baby out. With a screech of brakes another car slammed into the SUV and crushed Purry. Darkness fell.
A doctor patted her on the arm. “You saved the baby! She’s alive! It’s amazing anyone could have survived that crash!”
“Intact,” another murmured.
They shifted from one foot to the other.
“We got it all on two or three dashcams.”
Purry stared at them. These humans seemed interested in her. “Will you be my friend?” she said.
They drew in a collective breath. She looked past them. The clock on the wall told her she’d run out of time.
Tears formed in her eyes. “Will you be my friend?” she repeated. Human Resources had only given her that one sentence. Until they signed off on the deal, her vocal chords formed no other words. The humans turned away from her and talked among themselves. At the word alien, she tuned out.
The doctor stepped up to her bedside. “We’re checking your ID.”
She shook her head. No! They’d put her on the shuttle. Couldn’t she have just a few more minutes?
“Calm down.” The doctor smiled. “You saved that baby. Still, I understand the protocols.” He patted her on the arm. “Yes, I’ll be your friend. Oh, and one more thing.” He stopped smiling. “I’m afraid we had to replace your legs. Lucky for you, the kangaroo took the full impact. There wasn’t much left of it.”
Purry gaped. The kangaroo had taken the ‘full impact’? They’d replaced ‘her legs?’ What with?
A nurse bent over her. “Don’t worry. Part-body transplants are routine these days. We even matched your legs. You’ll be up and walking in no time. One more thing: Human Resources only had you listed as P915. Said they couldn’t pronounce your name. What is it, love? We don’t go by number here.” She gave a warm smile.
Purry blinked and mimed writing. Someone fetched a sheet of paper and a pen. With great concentration she voiced her name. Now to write it down.
She stopped. Purry? She’d given them her name, but Human Resources had made jokes about cats and in the end, given her a number.
The nurse clapped her hands. “Peri! Such a cute name!”
Peri smiled back.
- - -
Brenda Anderson’s fiction has appeared in places like Andromeda Spaceways, Penumbra, Fiction Vortex and defenestration, and will appear in SpeckLit. She lives in Adelaide, South Australia.
- ► 2017 (17)
- ► 2016 (52)
- ► 2015 (53)
- ▼ December (4)
- ► 2013 (31)
- ► 2012 (52)
- ► 2011 (24)