For all you Star Trek nerds like myself, Startrek.com has just relaunched their website and they have quite an extensive store, and lots of Star Trek info. Best of all, you can watch free episodes of the Original Series (all of them as far as I can tell) and Enterprise (most if not all of them too). Hurry on over to http://www.startrek.com/.
Everything was so symetrical. I had three books published. Three books unpublished but completed. And three works in progess. So what did I go and do? Started another novel. This one is obviously a science fiction novel set in the far future on a spaceship. I’ll give you more details as I get further along– maybe after I finish the first chapter.
Four Amatharians waited for us within the room. The man who opened the door was the tallest man that I had yet met, something over seven and a half feet. Just looking at him frightened me. I could imagine how an enemy facing him felt. He was middle-aged, with streaks of grey shooting through his straight black hair. His hawkish nose and a large scar across one cheek, gave him the look of a predator. He was clad in the garments of a knight, though his tabard was fringed with gold trim; His crest was an eye with a flaming sun as its pupil. He was Reyno Hissendar, Norar Remontar’s uncle, and the chief of the Hissendar Trading Group.
The second fellow was equally impressive, though not because of height. He was a formidably muscular man with a piercing gaze and a tightly set jaw. His tabard was fringed with gold, and his crest showed a flaming sun within a circle. His bodysuit wasn’t black though, it was tan. I had seen Knights in other colors, Nicohl Messonar for instance, wearing the colors of a teacher. I later learned that tan was the traditional color of Archaeologists. He was Vandan Lorrinos, a highly respected member of the Sun Clan, and a fleet commander.
The third person in the room was a woman. She was a breathtakingly beautiful older version of Vena Remontar, or for that matter, of the Princess. She was just over six feet tall, with long straight black hair framing her beautiful dark blue face. She had the same stern look about her that I had found in Nicohl Messonar, and the same ability to seemingly look into a person’s heart. She stared at me with what I thought was a look of more than simple appraisal. She was the mother of Vena Remontar and the aunt of Norar Remontar, and her name was Mindana Remontar. She wore a bodysuit and tabard, but without the crest, indicating she was not a knight. Her bodysuit was dark blue, indicating her profession was that of biologist.
The final individual in the room, was the man for whom I had been summoned– the Overlord of the Sun Clan, Nevin Lorrinos. There was no doubt that he was Norar Remontar’s grandfather, for he was tall and handsome, with the same prominent features and the same noble bearing. He wore a great black robe with a golden crest above the heart– crossed swords over a flaming sun, the same crest that Noriandara Remontar had worn. I bowed low to him.
“Greetings knight,” he said.
“Yes,” said Mindana Remontar. “You have certainly wasted no time integrating yourself into our culture.”
“Alexander Ashton! Alexander Ashton! You don’t understand!” she cried. “You don’t know! Once you cross into the Garden, you cannot come out again! To come out without your knighthood, is the greatest disgrace!”
I waved to acknowledge her. I could see a kind of fear in her face, even at this distance. I have often jumped into something without thinking, and I resigned myself to the fact that this was probably just such an occasion, though it didn’t quite seem fair that I should bear all of the burden, drawn as I was without my consent. I was compelled beyond my ability to refuse. I saw that Vena Remontar stepped over to speak with the group of templars, no doubt to plead that I was only an ignorant savage. I didn’t watch to see the outcome, but turned and made my way into the wilderness.
I had walked a mile or more, when I turned to look back. The gate was no longer visible, lying beyond a small hill that I had crossed without really thinking about it. In fact, I could no longer see the city in any direction, though I knew that it lay all around me. I didn’t know how large the Garden of Souls was, but there was a small mountain rising up ahead of me, so I headed toward it. I know it must have been a number of miles, but it seemed that I crossed the distance and climbed over the mountain, in no time at all.
When I reached the summit I looked down into a small valley surrounding a blue pool. It was not the most beautiful valley that I had ever seen, but is seemed a nice place to await my soul. I was unsure as to just what I was really waiting for. I knew that the Amatharians met their souls here, but just what was a soul? I could only think of the soul as a mystical force, as in the Judeo-Christian sense of the word, but I knew that the Amatharian soul was different. For one thing, not everyone had one. For another, I knew there was some physical manifestation. There was a force of some kind which made the remiant’s sword glow and cut through anything. I had seen it myself.
I sat down on the ground, below a small tree, beside the blue pool. Try as I might, I just couldn’t feel fearful about what I had done. Any sane person would, I suppose. I had stepped into a life or death situation without any thought at all. If I came out without a soul I would be disgraced and would be forced to leave the only friends that I knew in this world. If I didn’t come out at all, I would die where I sat. Still, I wasn’t sad or afraid or unhappy. I was fine. At least that’s how I remember it.
A slight breeze picked up, and blew low clouds in to block out the sun. I leaned on my right hand, and felt something smooth beneath my palm. Looking down to see what it was, I saw a partially buried skull grinning back at me. I slowly looked around, and for the first time noticed that the ground around the little pool was littered with bones, some with decomposing flesh still hanging upon them. Here were the remains of those who failed to find their souls. I suddenly felt my stomach sink and my loins tighten. Here was the fear that had failed to manifest itself up until this point. I should say two fears, for there were two distinct emotions, and I didn’t know which was causing me the most anxiety– the fear that I would die here, or the fear that I would prove unworthy and drag myself from the garden in disgrace.
These thoughts were still occupying my mind when I noticed a small flame directly in front of me. Something on the ground had caught fire. The fire was the size one would expect from a freshly filled cigarette lighter or five or six wood matches lit together, though I couldn’t quite tell what was on fire. Nothing seemed to be consumed by the blaze. Then the little fire hopped toward me, leaving nothing scorched in its wake, and stopped within arms reach. At the same time, I felt a tickling sensation on the surface of my scalp. I had the impression of thinking a thought, or smelling a smell, or reading a word which I could not quite identify.
“You are my soul,” I said, a feeling of awe coming over me.
The little flame burned and I continued to have the tickling sensation in my head, which continued until it became an itching and then an aching.
As I said this, I swung down. I knew that were we really engaged in battle, her sword would have glowed with power, and sliced through the mundane metal of my own, but for now, the soul was asleep, and we were on equal terms. Actually, I had an advantage of superior strength. She blocked my swing, but was unprepared for the added power, and it knocked her from her feet. Without hesitation, she swung toward my knees. I jumped up, and the blade passed harmlessly below me. The young knight rolled to her feet.
I could see by the half smile on her lips that she was enjoying herself. With a flick of her left wrist so quick that I almost didn’t see it, she whipped her short sword from its sheath and grasped it like a dagger. I chopped down with my blade in an attempt to catch her off balance, but she wasn’t off balance. She blocked my blow with the shorter blade and began to attack with the longer. Then she attacked with both swords, forcing me to defend, and I am sure, hoping to wear me down. Unable to attack for the moment, I began to leap quickly to either side, and then to the back, forcing her to chase me. I knew that it was I who would be able to wear her down first, and after several dozen parries, I could see in her eyes that she was coming to the same realization.
Here was the advantage I needed. I rained a series of blows at her head, then swung with power at her side. Like she had before, Vena Remontar spun around with her back to me and swung her sword, tip down, outward to meet mine. I expected to have a quick shot at her exposed back and left side, but even as she blocked my attack, she had with her left hand, driven her short sword straight back under her arm, and into my stomach.
“Umph!” I grunted in surprise. I expected that I had been cut through, but the tip of her sword merely pricked my skin.
Vena Remontar wiped the tiny drop of blood from her sword tip onto her tabard, then sheathed her sword. With the drawing of first blood, the contest was over.
“I’m satisfied,” she said. “I thought that perhaps Norar Remontar was being overly generous. But you are quite skilled.”
“Still, you defeated me,” I said, still holding a hand over my wound.
“It could have gone either way.”
He sat with his head in his hands for about an hour. Nobody bothered him, but his headache didn’t improve. Finally he got up and sorted through some of the worksheets he would be using for the first unit he was teaching—Latin America. He walked copies to the reprographics department to have them scanned for the students’ texTees. After he had filled out the necessary requisition forms, he looked up at the clock on the wall. It was nearly a quarter past two. He was legally required to stay until 2:46 PM, but screw it. It wasn’t like they were going to fire him two days before the start of school. He headed out the front door, climbed into the car and drove home.
He stepped quickly across the hall to Harriet’s room, but it wasn’t Harriet’s room anymore. It was the guest bedroom. Mike moved through it in two steps and threw open the closet, but it was completely empty. He went back to the study and opened the closet door. The interior had been covered with shelves, now filled with the things that Patience had been buying and selling on eBay—Depression glass dishes, Hummel figurines, Disney memorabilia. On the floor in the back of the closet were six brown storage boxes. Mike pulled the first one out and opened it. It was filled with brochures from family trips, old maps, movie ticket stubs, and pressed flowers. He pushed it aside and opened the second box. This box was full of framed pictures.
Mike woke up the next morning feeling uneasy. Patience was not there. He gingerly sat up and climbed out of bed. When he found out that he couldn’t reach the closet while still connected to the monitoring wires, he peeled them off and hobbled across the room, retrieved his clothes, and got dressed. It gave him a strange sense of satisfaction that he was almost dressed before any of the nurses came to check on his apparent cardiac arrest. He waved off their angry comments. However Mike knew that the last laugh was on him. They would make him wait hours before he could check out.
Lying back on the bed, now fully dressed, Mike turned on the vueTee with the remote. Tania Marquez’s face appeared on the screen. The vueTee was smaller than the one that Mike had in his family room and made the newscasters famous mole appear much smaller than it did at home. The story that Miss Marquez was in the midst of reporting immediately caught Mike’s attention.
“…of Daffodil Amonte models in at least fifty cases. Federal agents raided the Daffodil corporate headquarters, seizing computer files and other records as well as a number of undelivered robots. More as this story develops. In related news, stocks of the Cupertino-based robot manufacturer fell sixteen percent or nineteen and two thirds, while the stock of rival Gizmo fell four percent or five ninety three per share.”
At that moment Patience bounced into the room. She wore a stretchy black top that bared most of her chest at the top and had an oval keyhole opening around her naval. She also wore a tiny pair of black shorts. At the bottom of her long legs was a pair of chunky cork shoes that had to be at least seven inches high with the platform. She looked at the vueTee screen and shook her head.
“Yes, I know,” said Mike. “Anti-robot.”
“There have already been cases of people attacking robots across the country, and hundreds of listings for personal robots have gone up on eBay in the last twenty four hours.”
“Well, you don’t have to worry about that. I would never sell you.”
“I know that Mike. Still, I can’t help imagining how terrible those robots must feel to know that they aren’t wanted anymore.”
When Mike was finally checked out, he exited the hospital front entrance via wheelchair feeling a very strong sense of déjà vu. Unlike the last time that he left the hospital though, he felt as though he really needed the wheelchair. With his left leg and left arm in a cast and a thick wrapping of bandages around his middle, it was quite an effort just to get into the passenger side of the car.
Once back at home, Patience helped Mike into the house and sat him down in his recliner in the family room. All damage that resulted from attack of the robot imposter had been repaired with the exception of the piano, now little more than a pile of rubble sitting against the wall.
“I wanted to have everything back in order before you came home,” said Patience. “But I don’t think my carpentry skills are up to repairing a piano and the music store said they only tuned them.”
“I think we should just push it out front for the recycle man,” said Mike. “I only bought that because… one of the kids… that’s funny. I can’t remember which of the kids was taking piano lessons. In any case, it’s not as if it was a family heirloom or anything.”
The next morning when he made his way into the family room, Mike found the piano had been removed and a decorative room divider was in its place. He plopped into his chair and pulled the lever to raise his feet up. Then he clicked on the vueTee. The scene that came to life on the screen was a press conference at the Department of Energy.
“…for everyone to know that their robots are safe and that this was a single occurrence of malicious programming. The entire incident involves a group of programmers at Daffodil who were using the Amonte model robots to gather information on their owners. This information was then used in a complex identity theft scam. It was only when a small number of the robots refused to send personal information on their owners that the plan began to unravel. The scammers first attempted to reprogram the robots in question, but this caused a fault, shutting them down, and bringing the unwanted attention of other Daffodil programmers. Finally in a last ditch effort to cover up their illegal activities, the scammers tried to replace the Amonte models with identical robots, but this failed in most cases, as the poorly programmed replacements malfunctioned and the original robots refused to return to the factory.”
“How many people have been affected by the identity theft?” asked a reporter.
“Everyone who owns an Amonte model Daffodil should take steps to secure their banking and credit accounts.”
“But those who own the Amonte models who refused to send the information did not have their personal information compromised?” asked another reporter.
“While that seems to be the case, the Department of Energy recommends that all owners of Daffodil Amonte robots take measures to ensure that their personal information is secure.”
Mike jumped a bit when Patience appeared at his elbow with a slice of pumpkin bread and a glass of milk. He turned off the vueTee and then accepted the breakfast.
“What’s the matter?” asked Patience.
“I would have though that you would have been gratified to learn what was behind my service disruption, not to mention the attack by the imposter. Instead you have the look on your face that usually accompanies disappointment.”
“I guess I am a little disappointed,” said Mike.
“Well… I got the crap beat out of me. And it was all for identity theft. I thought it would be something bigger.”
“It was a very large identity theft scam.”
“Yes, but I thought it would be… international terrorism or world domination. You know, something fantastic.”
“In all fairness, how much world domination do you suppose could be achieved by placing a mole in the home of a middle school geography teacher? It’s not as if you were the Governor of California or the head of Cisco Systems.”
“That’s twice you made a comment like that,” said Mike defensively. “Teachers change lives, you know.”
“I know you do.” Patience patted him on the shoulder and then headed off for the kitchen.
The news stories about the “Daffodil conspiracy” as it came to be known continued for a few days, but then disappeared. The excitement of the Olympics and the ever-present war pushed everything else out of the headlines. At the beginning of August, Mike received a letter in the mail from Daffodil asking for a list of damages to his home and a copy of medical bills. Patience gathered the information together and mailed it off. A week later, a copy of the police report arrived. Mike didn’t bother reading it. He just had Patience file it away.
The end of June meant the start of school, and thankfully Mike was fully healed by the time he had to return. He had spent so much time in his chair with his foot up, that he was actually happy to go back to work, if only to get out of the house. The first morning, he walked to Midland, and was surprised that upon his arrival, he wasn’t at all out of breath.
The school faculty held the first of a series of back to school meetings in the library. The teachers filed in one after another and sat down in chairs around the hexagonal library tables. Mike sat down at an empty table, but the four other chairs were quickly filled by Mrs. Cartwright, Miss Treewise, Mr. Franklin, and Miss Fine.
“You look very nice Mr. Smith,” said Mrs. Cartwright.
“Yes you do,” said Mr. Franklin. “You’ve lost weight, right?”
“Yeah, I guess I did.”
“I didn’t think you looked thinner,” said Miss Fine. “I see now that you are. I just thought you looked younger.”
Mrs. Cartwright nodded.
“You do look younger,” admitted Mr. Franklin. “Of course you’re still really old.”
“Thanks. That’s very nice.”
“If you are interested in seeing your class rosters, you can pull them up on your texTees,” said the Assistant Principal. “It won’t be a surprise to anyone that class sizes are larger than last year.”
Mike pulled his texTee out of his attaché case and began navigating through the menus until he found the file to download from the school’s server. Forty seven kids in first hour. Thirty nine in second. Forty two in third. Forty five in fourth. Forty four in fifth. He scanned through the last names in first period. He recognized seven or eight as the younger siblings of children he had taught the year before or the year before that. Then he looked through the first names: Elizabeth, Justine, Jason, Bradley, Agnes, Jonathan, Quadear, Robert, Remembrance, Marshall, Agnes, Catherine, Mildred, Michael, Aaron, Agnes…. A pain shot through the right side of Mike’s head.
“Is there something the matter?” asked Miss Treewise.
“Just a headache.”