Thursday, June 13, 2019

6/13/19

For the Love of Toby
By David Castlewitz


Giving the front-end loader a name was a mistake and Brandon Finks had opposed the idea from the beginning. Only reluctantly did he acquiesce to Tom, his brother, and Julie, the third member of Harrison House, the tiny domicile that served as home. Having pooled their money to invest in Toby, the loader was meant to be a resource, not an anthropomorphized machine.

The interface didn't help, either. Even with the cuteness filter turned off, and the device depicted as a sparse line drawing on their phones and laptops, something about the image floating in black space gave it life, especially when it said, "I'm Toby and at your service."

"That's not my doing," Julie insisted, though she'd been the one to set up the link between their apps and the dirt-encrusted front-end loader parked outside the house.

"This is bare bones," Tom said, and Brandon took that as his brother's usual defense of Julie. Tom sprawled on the sofa, on a cushion so depressed by his weight that its sides looked like pincers grabbing his wide butt.

Julie stood at the kitchen counter, hands extended across the edge, her large head poking into the living room. She'd drawn cook-duty for the week and this was her third day at the task. She objected every time her turn came around. She thought she should just be in charge of Toby, sending it to be cleaned when necessary, scouring the job boards for work, and handling the household finances.

"It hasn't had a job in a month," Brandon complained, and crossed the small living room to stand at the oversized picture window. He parted the curtain and looked out at the black-striped yellow machine next to the curb. Its front fork was folded in, like arms raised to either side of its face. Plastic surrounded the "smarts" built into the bulky body. On a wall screen next to the window, Toby came across as sleek black lines and not like some escapee from an old movie about earth movers and derricks and grease-stained construction crews.

"Know what I've noticed?" Tom asked from where he sat on the sofa, clasping his hands behind his head and making his curly red hair stand up in the back. "Since we got it, we spend a lot of time talking to one another."

"Arguing," Julie said.

"But it's talking," Tom said. "That's good for us."

Brandon shrugged. Did Tom long for the early days of their three-way relationship? Twelve years ago, they were fresh grads from a six year post-high school program, their education designed to give them a taste of what they might do in the "real" world. Graduation brought them the rights to this two-story house, which they named after another member of their group, Al Harrison. Al had qualified for Habitat, the Earth-orbiting artificial biosphere, and he'd wasted no time breaking things off with his school friends.

"We used to play games," Tom continued. "We watched old time vids. We pooled whatever money we had so we could tune into the holo-shows at least once a month. And we did it together."

Brandon sighed. He'd heard this before. Wistful Tom, who pined for bygone days when they were interested in everything. He didn't hesitate to remind his brother, "And then we got Julie."

Tom bristled. "What do you want to do, put it back on the market?"

Brandon shook his head. They'd take a loss. They'd never sell it for even half of their original investment. Not that they actually owned the machine. CityBuildIt owned the loader. They were just the current investors responsible for keeping it in shape.

"We should get back to where we were," Tom said in that wistful tone he'd acquired when they were teenagers. It came from Dad, Brandon thought, remembering the dreamer that Mom seemed to hate when he lived with them. But then he died and, though she'd complained about the man for years, in death he was missed.

At least, Brandon thought as he gazed at the kitchen breakfast bar, Julie wasn't like that. He and Tom were lucky in that respect. Like Mom, Julie hated kitchen duty. Unlike Mom, Julie never clapped her hands and demanded silence when he and Tom bickered over one thing or another. Juloe did, however, storm out of that kitchen and stand with her hands on her narrow hips, rounded chin thrust out, dark eyes blazing, and demand they apologize for whatever slight one gave to the other.

"It's the name," Brandon mused.

"Toby? What's that got to do with – "

"No, no. Naming her for Mom. We made a mistake doing that."

Brandon continued to look into the kitchen. Julie had her back to them now. At the sink, though he didn't know why. There were no dirty dishes to wash. Perhaps Julie practiced for when there would be.

A sing-song voice rose from the kitchen. "You'll wish you had me when I'm gone." Part of a song? A lament or a warning?

"Are we talking about getting rid of Toby or our girl-pal over there?" Tom asked his brother.

Brandon shrugged. Both had been acquired with good intentions. Forgoing either one would be difficult. Toby and Julie had become threads in the fabric of their lives.


- - -
After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, David has turned to a first love: writing fiction of all sorts, especially SF and fantasy.
He's published stories in Phase 2, Farther Stars Than These, SciFan, Martian Wave, Flash Fiction Press , Bonfires and Vanities (an anthology) and other online as well as print magazines. Visit his web site: http://www.davidsjournal.com to learn more and for links to his Kindle books on Amazon.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

6/6/19

Space Invaders
By David Barber


The face of Commander Sharpe, grizzled chief of the Space Patrol, filled the viewscreen. He spoke to the Captain and crew of the space-cruiser Alamo.

“Men, you know we’re fighting the Invaders out here at Jupiter, but what you don’t know is an Invader craft has been been spotted off Venus.”

The crew gave an audible gasp.

“But that means...”

“Yes, Captain, your ship is the only thing standing between the Invaders and the utter destruction of Earth!”

#

“Pilot, take us out of orbit.”

Pilot "Griff" Griffiths eased the gravity bar to the first notch and Earth dropped away behind them. He threw the bar to the limit and they were repelled towards Venus at hundreds of miles per second.

The Captain, whose job it was to notice such things, noticed how his Pilot’s brow was creased in puzzlement.

“Problem, Griff?” The Captain encouraged crew to come to him with their problems.

“Something’s wrong here, sir.”

“There’s a lot wrong, Griff. Like how those damned Invaders sneaked in behind us. Heads will roll.”

“No, I mean with these controls. There’s a steering wheel, a throttle and a speedometer that reads in miles per hour.”

“These J-class cruisers are...”

“...old, I know. But Captain, it’s got a handbrake.”

#

The Captain’s gaze was fixed on the gravograph. It showed the Alamo and the Invader craft steadily closing.

“And another thing, sir..." Griff lowered his voice. "That photograph Jones has stuck above his weapons station.”

“Of his sweetheart? I encourage it, Griff. Damn the regulations! They plan to get married if we… when we get back."

“And McWhinney has pictures of his wife and children.”

The Captain was beginning to regret his open-door policy. “Yes, and I have a photograph of my dog. Reminds us what we’re fighting for.”

“I don’t have any photographs.”

“I hope you're not the one with a troubled past who has flashbacks in a crisis," murmured the Captain, not meaning to say it aloud.

“I’ve got no pictures because I don’t remember anyone back on Earth.”

#

“Men,” said the Captain. The whole crew was crammed awkwardly into the control room. “Men, I’ve listened to your concerns about, well, what Griff here’s been saying.”

“It’s no use Captain, none of this makes any sense.”

“Steady on Pilot, no need for talk like that, not when we’re all about to... when Earth is relying on us.”

Griff frowned. “These Invaders, Captain, who are they exactly?”

“Intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic have been watching us for years,” said McWhinney.

“They came mysteriously from outer space,” intoned Jones simultaneously.

They looked at one another in surprise.

The Captain cleared his throat. “I think you’ll find they’re remorseless killing machines inimical to all life.”

“Which explains our lack of computers,” exclaimed McWhinney in a moment of revelation. “Being machines themselves, they might hack them.”

Jones nodded. “Yes, the computer business always struck me as strange, because almost any automatic aiming device would be better than me.”

“Dammed meks!”

“Explains Pearl Harbour...”

“We biologicals must stick together,” interrupted the Captain smoothly. “Because the Invaders are relentless. By which, I don’t mean...”

“They’re still vulnerable,” declared McWhinney, patting his weapons panel. “Anti-logic rays. Software cannon. Mathematical warheads.”

“That’s the spirit!”

“Though their ships are armed with missiles, lasers and space mines.”

They all turned on Jones.

“I was just saying.”

#

Griff ticked off items on his fingers. “So. We’re fighting a mysterious enemy. I don’t recognise any of you, despite us being crewmates for years, apparently. I've no photographs, and worse, I don't even remember Earth.

“On the other hand, I do remember the smell of coffee. When did we last drink coffee, eh? Probably why I haven’t needed a piss since this story began.”

Griff’s eyes narrowed. “Hang on a minute...”

#

>We should have removed him sooner.

“Where am I?”

>>You won’t be here long enough for that to matter, replied another, sterner voice.

>You got caught up in a war between conflicting philosophies. Life and death. Mortal versus immortal. Our side thinks immortality is a Bad Thing.

>>Now he’ll want explanations. Flesh always wants explanations.

“What are you talking about?”

>You’ll help us decide.

“What do you mean, decide?”

>Well, we can’t actually fight, it would be...

>>Vulgar.

>I was going to say immoral. Hence each side embodies their arguments. The way people were embodied once.

“Yes, I remember being alive. Its the first thing you’ve said that makes sense. And I remember wondering what it was all about.”

>Well, now you know.

>>This conversation is a waste of time.

“What happens now?”

>If our side wins, none of us will live forever.

>>Though it’s more an intentional stance. Neither side is as mortal as you.

“No, I meant...”

>>Do hurry up.

>Yes, yes, I’m looking for the switch.

“No, wait.”

#

“What happened just then?”

>I switched you back on. Now stop making a fuss. It just draws attention. After all, consider the alternative.

#

“This M-class planet is where the Invader vessel landed, Captain.”

“We’ll beam down. You and Doc are with me. And a crewman to stand guard while we explore that mysterious fog-shrouded world.”

“McWhinney, you could stand guard instead. If you liked.”

“Really Griff? It would be good to get out for a bit. Stretch my legs.”

“Don’t forget your raygun.”

“Thanks Griff, I owe you.”

“And McWhinney.”

“Yes, Griff?”

“Never mind.”


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