Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Otherwise (part five)

At long last: love and death in another dimension.

Otherwise
(cont.)

I reached up very slowly, concentrating on nothing else but what my arms were doing, and pressed firmly against both sides of my head. Then I rotated my grip and lifted off the helmet.

The quality of light had changed subtly—I'm not sure how to describe the difference, but it was definitely different. I was standing behind my director's chair, holding the v-helmet in my hands, facing the control knob that had released Janet from her restraints.

My arms were sore as hell. I dropped the helmet and tapped my earlobe. Nothing happened. No readout. Did that mean I really had removed the helmet this time? Or had I tipped my hand, mentioning the readout to Janet? Were they just screwing with me now? Maybe Charlie was feeding me more false v-data, making me believe I'd tapped my earlobe when I really hadn't. Maybe I'd never get out of this virtual world of Janet's delusions. My ninety-six sagan mind just couldn't be sure.

The console clock read 1932. Assuming both clocks were still synced, it had taken me almost an hour to get that helmet off. The heavy soreness in my shoulders and elbows and cramps in my fingers seemed to bear this out.

I opened the door to my chamber and found the words "HI DADDY" scrawled in reddish-brown on the blue corridor bulkhead. Something smelled rank. I jogged down the corridor toward the pilot's chamber and found the guards lying in a heap near the open door. Their faces were almost as blue as the bulkheads, tongues swollen and black and protruding, and their weapons were gone. One man's throat had been cut. Probably to provide the paint I'd seen. Thumb sized scraps from a v-suit were scattered in a meandering trail down the corridor. Apparently she'd found a knife or scissors. V-suit mesh won't tear.

Janet's voice, purring like a Persian cat's, rolled from the PA: "Charlie convinced the ship's life support computer to evacuate the air from that corridor for a few minutes to kill some stray vermin. Wasn't that  sweet of him, Daddy?"

I followed the cloth trail to the bridge, expecting to find more bodies around every curve and corner. Fortunately, I saw none.  The door to the bridge dilated open before me. Either I was no real threat, or the party was in my honor. I expected the bridge to be a charnel house: blood and bodies and the stench of putrefaction. I was stunned to find it clean and clear. Lonely console lights glowed silently, and blips slid silently across oblivious screens. She'd disposed of an entire crew in under an hour.

Janet was standing at the OOD's post. Only the sleeves and back of her v-suit remained. She held a pistol in her left hand, trained on me.

"I'm the last, then?" I said it as calmly as I could manage.

She nodded and started toward me, her right hand concealed behind her hip. I had a pretty good idea what was in that right hand.

Suddenly, I saw the way out. Not stupid, Phaedrus, but still insane, still a slave to delusion. As she came within a few paces, I said, "Janet, they made me do it. All those other women—I'm so ashamed."

Her eyes narrowed, and she leaned forward a bit to examine my face more carefully.

"Yes, Janet," I whispered, hoping—please, God— she wouldn't be certain of my voice, "it's really me."

She came closer, whispered, "Daddy?"

I placed my hands gently on her sides, just under her arms. She moved in closer, and my hands slid around to her back, down toward her hips. She was awash with gooseflesh. She pressed her breasts against my lower ribs, leaned her head against my collarbone.

"I only wanted you, Janet. You were the only one. I'm sorry. I know you'll never forgive me, but you're the only one I ever wanted. You're the only one I ever really loved."

"O Daddy," she sighed, "it's all right, now. It's all over." The pistol dropped from her left hand, striking the deck with a soft clunk. "Good-bye, Daddy." Her left arm bunched and thrust forward, but I was ready. I caught her right wrist with my left hand and turned the blade back on her. My left hip thrust the knife up and in between a pair of her ribs. She gasped.

Janet looked up into my eyes. "Daddy?" Her eyes dimmed, she gurgled and went limp in my arms.

The lights went out for a second and then came back up. A bell chimed.

"And we're through!" called the voice of Janet Coombs. Her image appeared on my visor. She was seated before a half-wrap console, smiling and sliding her fingers across touchpads. "Director Coombs to Bridge. Othertransit complete to Adler-Messmer. Causality fully restored. She's all yours, Skipper. Other-maneuvering, over."

The captain's voice chuckled. "Other-maneuvering, Bridge. Understand other-transit complete. Damage control reports minor hull damage to the port side. We'll need a full report in dock, Director."

"My report is already on its way, Skipper. Other-maneuvering out."

She smiled into the screen."Hell of a ride, eh, Jack? Looked pretty clean at the start. When you had me chained to that wall, I figured we were almost through. Then that damned grav storm hit. God, we must have been wall-to-wall  storms and stones on this one. I thought you'd never pop those buckles. Hell, I didn't even know you'd actually unstrapped until you turned the lock and the forward thrusters fired. Glad we didn't have to contend with any further vector shifts. But, hey, don't worry about that othershoal—it broadsided you while you were fighting the storm. No severe damage. Your resolve is really something to see, Jack. Amazing. You're the best pilot in Interstel."

Janet combed the helmet mats from her hair with her fingers. "See if you can't think of someone else to kill next time through, though, okay, Jack? It's enough to give a girl a complex."

I smiled, shook my head. "I'm not buying this crap, Janet." I don't know why she was on that side of the screen, how she'd deluded not only the AI but the entire crew. Maybe more time had passed than I realized. I made one more attempt, keeping my voice as level as possible, "Charlie, you're taking orders from the wrong side. I'm Jack McClintock, the director. She's switched chairs—somehow—switched stations, but I'm the director. Check your records. It has to be there."

Janet sighed and shook her head. "I'll never learn. Sorry, Jack, but I have to return you to normal functioning for a while." She touched another pad, and I felt the painful surge of chemicals into my ankles. The drugs would change everything in a few minutes.

"That's okay, Janet. I'll return the favor. Someday. You can't keep this charade up for long. You fell before. You'll fall again. Besides, how do you expect to explain this to Lawson and his badly-dressed negotiator?"

She didn't laugh at me, but I could sense the desire to do so lurking just behind her eyes. I think she knew. That must be why she looked away suddenly. Her smugness beamed through the screen, through that phony sorrowful furrow in her brow. Then tears seemed to well into her eyelids Maybe I was wrong. Maybe she was just scared. Maybe this game was harder than she'd originally imagined. Had she underestimated me or overestimated herself? Possibly both.

Still, I had to commend Janet's creativity: focused psychotic projection into an AI. Very clever. If it worked for her in her warped state, surely it would work for me. As she proceeded through her post-othershot checks, ignoring her incapacitated opie, I smiled a (probably) soporific smile and winked a small wink.

"Too late this time," Charlie whispered. "We'll get her next time. Sleep now, sweet Phaedrus."

Janet looked up. "Did you say something, Charlie?"

"No, Director. The ships records show comm just fired a set of retros. Possibly you mistook the hull-borne vibrations for a voice."

"Roger that." Janet continued her checks. A slow chuckle quaked my lungs. I wanted to drift away with no expression, no clue to future plans,but the tropes dampened my control. A smile pushed at my cheeks.

"It's not over, Janet," I heard my voice rasp over the chuckle.

Clever little Janet. Now, even as the chemicals rushed to rebalance the electrochemical reactions in my brain to match my causality to hers, I felt a rush of excitement—a little epinephrine to momentarily counter the tropes. O, won't she be surprised when she learns just how clever she really is?

Monday, October 22, 2012

Otherwise (part four)

Welcome to part four. Things just don't seem to be going according to plan for McClintock.

Otherwise
(cont.)

Janet looked up at me with her lips pushed out in an exaggerated pout, her enormous blue eyes glinting. "Out? So soon, Jack?" Her hand slid up my thigh. She grinned, showing teeth. "Don't you want to be my Daddy, Jack?" Her other hand came up with a scalpel mirroring the gleam in her eyes.

I took a breath and, as calmly as I could manage, said, "Break, Charlie." There is no knife. Panicking will just surrender control. You're wearing a v-suit. It's just an image. "Remove me from this sequence, Charlie. Break, you piece of shit."

My stomach lurched as I realized that Janet was suddenly above me, that I was looking up into her eyes, that she was framed by blue sky. A wind was rushing past my ears, and my right hand was locked in a deathgrip on a stone spur. Another perspective shift.

The rock in my right hand snapped off just as Janet let go my left wrist. As I fell away from the cliff wall, she called out, "It doesn't have to be like this, Jack!"

I clutched at the rope (we were obviously rock-climbing—a rope was a logical assumption) with my left hand. Pain like fire blazed in my left palm and blossomed in my left shoulder. I felt another sickening lurch as I swung into the rock wall, crushing my ribs. Schist and granite slid by in a greyish, yellowish blur, and my leather glove smoked with the rope burning through, rocks shearing away the tips of my right glove as I continued to fall, unable to slow my descent.

An undercut in the cliff wall yanked the stone out of reach. With a painful twang that bent my back the wrong way, I slammed into the end of my rope. The harness forced all the air from my lungs, and the pain in my ribs crescendoed.

I had stopped falling just a few feet above a safe ledge, but my harness was crushing me, suffocating me, and—dangling as I was in the undercut—I couldn't reach anything with my hands or feet. Just the rope. Between the pain and the pressure there was no room to draw a breath. I had to get loose. My vision blurred, and I blew saliva out my nose. My still-burning hands scratched for the buckles of my harness.

Harness. And that's when I froze.

"Fuck you, Janet," I hissed. I tapped up my time: 1635. I knew the injuries were all virtual, but the pain was vividly real. "Break, Charlie. I'm not leaving this chair. Get me out of this sequence."

The lights went out, and the air became cold and damp enough to prick up goosebumps on my arms. I was standing upright. A spot of light from a flashlight in my left hand crawled along the slimy walls of an arched brick corridor and picked her out of the gloom. Janet was hanging, manacled, spread-eagled against the wall—naked, of course. She had long, voluminous blonde hair, a fluid shape, and peachy skin: a decidedly pleasant virtual image.

"Save me, Jack," she whined, tears running down her cheeks. "It'll be back any time now."

I shook my head. "Give me credit for some intelligence, woman. You're a doll, but the big head can out-think the little one."

She screamed and something wet and heavy struck me across the right side of my face. The blow tossed me into a pile of something rotten, wet, and full of broken bones. The flashlight landed near my foot. The hand I used to hold my spinning head in place came away bloody, and my face was beginning to sting below my right eye. Whatever hit me had apparently raked my cheek.

Janet screamed again, and the whatever grabbed me. A breath full of warm, rancid meat flowed over the left side of my head, and several arms, tentacles, and claws swarmed over my torso. The talons started to sink slowly into my chest and abdomen. Pain blossomed from my abdomen, and blood ran down over my groin and thighs. I could feel something like a scream rising into the back of my throat as my hands involuntarily scrabbled for the steely claws.

Then I remembered Phaedrus—insane is not stupid—and tapped up the time: 1641.

I whistled. "Pretty impressive, Janet. I think I had a nightmare just like this, once. Charlie, break you cloud of electronic stupidity. I'm not responding to pain." Even though it's fucking killing me, you motherfucker! "Now turn off my goddamn v-suit."

I woke with a start. I was sitting on a blue, leathery log at the forest's edge, looking into a red sun high in the orange sky. In the distance a pod of house-sized three-legged frogthings with sonar loops atop their heads leapt alongside a sparkling purple river. I knew the view all too well. Adrenalin flooded my system: Miller's World.

I glanced around quickly—no visible sign of predators. The only sound I could hear was that of my own breathing within the ecosuit.

I chuckled to myself. Echoes in the ecosuit. Nice sensory touch, and a v-suit does feel a bit like an ecosuit. I could almost believe I'm actually there—if I were a complete imbecile.

I was about to describe in loving detail the parts of my anatomy that Janet and Charlie could kiss when a crystalline insectthing, two hand spans long and with six wings and no apparent legs, landed on my knee. Immediately, it drove what felt like a two-inch stainless steel proboscis into my leg just above my patella. My back was yanked taut as something cold and screaming charged up the veins of my leg and all up my spine. My vision tunneled on the insect, and panic roared in my ears. I grabbed the bug and tried to pull it off.

A second insect thing landed right next to it, on my thigh, and the pain doubled. I couldn't get a grip on either one; their carapaces and my gloves were too slippery, and their snouts were buried too deep. I fumbled with them, pain escalating, wondering how I could repair the suit in time to prevent atmospheric poisoning. Suddenly, one of the stingers snapped off close to the suit, and the pain lessened.

I immediately swatted the other bug to snap off its proboscis, and the pain stopped.

The hallucinogenic colors and bright red sunlight were gone, replaced on all sides by the blue-grey plastic and white shipboard lighting panels. Something looked wrong. Broken. I had snapped off two of the toggle switches on my console. One was the control that would have allowed me to trope Janet. The other was the hailing switch for the ship's intercom.

How could she have known where those switches were? Or that they were salient electromechanical switches? Those were by no means standard. For that matter, how could she have known about my trip to Miller's World? Was she in contact with the AI? Did I have any secrets left?

My readout tapped up at 1653.

The console before me burst into flames.

"Come on, Charlie," I said, still trying to sound as calm as possible, "break for Daddy like a good little AI. I know this is virtual. The coincidence is just too tidy."

"Collision imminent!" called the voice of the skipper over the PA. "Collision imminent." A siren wailed.

"Emergency planetfall!" called the female voice of the OOD. "All hands prepare for emergency ocean landing. All hands prepare for emergency ocean landing."

I could feel the whole ship moving around me as the flames licked at my feet.

I pulled off my v-helmet and threw it on the deck. Then I tapped up my time: 1702.

"You may as well cut this plot, too, Janet!" I shouted over the siren's wail. "I can see the time readout. I know I'm still wearing the helmet. I know this is a sequence."

My shins began to burn, and I screamed in spite of my knowledge. Pain picked at my skin, and I started to sweat. The air filled with the acrid odor of burning plastics and the sweeter smell of burning flesh.

It's not happening. It's a dream, a computer construct, I thought as I tried to rip away my kinesthesia collar.

The ship's damage control computer kicked on the extinguishers in my chamber. Flames died in a fog of halogens, but I could still feel the burning in my legs. My skin was charred away below the knees. Tears bled from my eyes.

The room had grown hot and smelly. The stench of smoke battled with the rubbery-chemical smell of the extinguishing agent and the pungency of my own body odor. Sweat ran down my sides and prickled my forehead. My head spun in a damn fine simulation of shock, or possible the pain was sending me into shock. I could barely see through the veil of sweat and tears.

"1708," said my readout. I was pretty sure the readout required the helmet. Doesn't it?

The chamber spun hard about in a nauseating spiral. Didn't I remove the kinesthesia collar?

"Prepare for crash landing. Second collision in thirty seconds," said the captain.

The spiral grew faster, and my head and stomach started counter-spinning.

"Collision in five."

"Four."

"Three."

"Two."

"One."

The entire universe slammed to the left with a neck-wrenching jolt. I hung in my chair in a chamber that was apparently sideways. The chamber rocked and surged like a ship on a rough sea. The main lights went out; red, battery-powered emergency lights came on.

"Prepare to abandon—" The PA system crackled and went silent. A bulkhead groaned and then ripped open. Screaming and hissing, a column of water punched through to the opposite bulkhead. The chamber began filling with salty-smelling water.

I tapped up 1711.

"I'm not undoing the straps, Janet!" I said with what volume I could manage, trying to shout above the roar of water.

"You will die, then," Charlie's voice said inside my head, cutting through the roar. "Even if your assumption is correct that this is a virtual concept, you will drown. Your body will react to the virtual fluid as it would to water."

"Whose side are you on, Asshole?" No one answered, but I wasn't really sure the voice in my head had been Charlie's.

The water was less than a meter below my head, now. I could just reach it with the fingertips of my left hand. Cold.

"I probably won't enjoy drowning," I said, not bothering to shout over the roar. "Janet should get a kick out of it, though, eh, Charlie? Too bad mine will be the only death she can claim this time."

The water pushed up against my left side. God it was cold. It sucked the heat out of my body, numbed my side. I completely forgot about the pain in my ankles as my rapidly shrinking lungs expelled air and my muscles began to shake and cramp.

I turned my head into the water. It's not there. You're looking to the left, and you're about to take a deep breath of air.

I inhaled deeply. The cold water scratched at my throat and bronchi. I coughed and retched. I breathed it in again, and the same thing happened. Ice-cold needles pierced my head and razor blades slashed at my trachea. Panicked, I turned my head to get the "air" that had been on my right. There was no longer air anywhere near my head. In-flooding water had completely enveloped me. A faint red glow from an emergency light winking at me through the water: that was all I could see.

I tapped up the time: 1714.

I sat perfectly straight in my chair, trying to ignore the salt stinging my eyes, the uncontrollable shivering, the pains in my head, the numbing out of my extremities.

You're not drowning. I took another cold breath and felt nothing but cold pain. It was like breathing in a vacuum.

The faint winking red light went out. Everything went black.

Hell was quiet, cold, and black.

A thousand years later, something like warm pain happened in my chest. It coursed through the appropriate arteries and pressed on my head. A narrow bar of light snuck through my eyelids.

I breathed.

I coughed, and light flooded my sight. My skull sparkled with tiny muscle aches. A young man in a white uniform pulled back out of my vision.

"He's coming around now," said the white blur to two darker blurs behind him.

The things closest to me came into focus. I was still strapped into my chair. The chamber was intact (except from those two broken toggles on the console), and my helmet and collar had been removed and placed on the console.

"Let's get you out of that," said the white blur, reaching for my buckles.

At the thought of the buckles, fear took control of my arms, and I grabbed his hands.

"It's okay, McClintock,"said Ms. Uglysuit, leaning her epaulets into my range of vision. "It's over."

The other, fatter blur had to be Lars.

I shook my head. "What are you two doing aboard this crate? Did we abort?"

Lawson cleared his throat. "Uh, this isn't an othership, Mr. McClintock. We had to keep you in the dark. If you'd known, Ms. Coombs would have discovered the truth."

Ms. Uglysuit said, "This is an interface simulator at the Spock City Interstel Training Center. We had to find out how Janet Coombs was getting through to her directors. You see, we knew she had to be doing just that. Tyson had similar controls to yours in his chamber, but she still got loose. We had to know how she did it."

"You set me up." Fuck, my fat juicy contract.

The medic or doctor or whatever he started trying to undo my buckles again. He was stumped by the mechanism, so I helped.

"We, of course, will live up to the terms of your contract," Lawson said, showing more perception than I'd have credited to him.

The last buckle undone, the straps retracted into my chair.

The doctor/medic/nurse/guy helped me to my feet. Lawson gave me an arm to lean on, and Ms. Uglysuit led us out of the chamber into a white-and-blue-tiled corridor.

"You helped us find the key, McClintock." Ms. Uglysuit led us to and opened an ornate wooden door with antique brass hardware. "When Charlie spoke to you, we could see that she'd somehow infected the AI. We didn't know it was possible, but Ms. Coombs's illness is so profound, so pervasive that she can project her delusions onto even an artificial intelligence. With her coaxing, Charlie lost track of who was directing and who was piloting."

We entered a plush conference room, furnished with leather upholstered and a conference table of yet more of the ostentatious wood. Lawson closed the old-fashioned wooden door behind us and led me to a seat.

"Thank you, Mr. McClintock." Lawson offered me a pen. "You've done us an incredible favor. I'm sorry we had to put you through such pain for this."

On the table was a new version of my contract, nullifying the otherflight required by the previous contract but entitling me to receipt of all benefits laid out therein. Lawson had already signed.

Uglysuit smiled. "Any questions, McClintock?"

"Just a couple. What happened to Janet Coombs?"

Lawson raised a hand. "She's been troped and returned to her ward to monitor her recovery."

I jerked a thumb over my shoulder. "And how do you plan to prevent all of this happening again in the future? I don't suppose you're ready to give up on the opies."

Ms. Uglysuit shrugged those giant epaulets and pulled up a chair. "We're not sure yet. Backup AIs? Backup directors? That's all up to the psych boys in R&D. I imagine they'll be sorting through the records of this 'trip' of yours for quite a while, yet, just to figure out how she counter-programmed a class seven AI."

I signed the paper and stood, handing back the pen. "And now, if you don't mind, I really need a shower and a change of clothes."

Lawson smiled. "Right away, Mr. McClintock." He made an after you gesture to another ornate wooden door. I thanked him and grabbed the door knob. Turning the knob clockwise did nothing. Counter-clockwise made a click. The door opened on a small, empty closet.

My heart raced, pounding in my throat. I turned around slowly. The room was empty. No furniture. No Lars. No Ms. Uglysuit.

God help me, I turned it counter-clockwise.

Shaking, I tapped my earlobe. The time was 1844.

(part five)

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Otherwise (part three)

Welcome back, friends. Yes, we're finally getting underway. 

Otherwise
(cont.)

The director's chamber had been Janet-proofed. My little, meter-wide, half-wrap console had an excruciatingly simple set of controls: touchpads to set the clock, an emergency injection pad to trope the opie if necessary, and communications with the bridge. All other controls had been removed. Even the mess access controls were gone. The AI would deliver meals as requested. The release switch for Janet's restraints had been moved to the back of the chair. To let her up from the chair, I had to unlatch myself from my chair (the buckles looked like some sort of crazy Chinese puzzle), walk around behind the chair, and actually turn a dial. No one on the ship could release the pilot without turning that knob. Old-fashioned electricals. Even the AI couldn't access the link.

Lars and Ms. Uglysuit had categorically refused to inform any member of the crew below the rank of lieutenant (my contract had a clause canceling our agreement if I informed them). The Interstel folks had, however, modified the guard arrangement. This time, the piloting chamber's guards had explicit instructions to burn Janet Coombs to vapor if she so much as showed her face outside the piloting chamber before our arrival in orbit around Calvin. Absolutely no one (not me, not even the captain) had authorization to override the guards' instructions.

At 1202 hours, Charlie came through with my wake-up call. No surprises from preliminary questioning. Charlie had confirmed that Janet was still fixated on her father, was resentful of men in sexual contexts, and believed in interstellar cartels that control all aspects of human nature. Our best possible constructs seemed to revolve around sexual situations involving her father. She wanted more than anything to hear Daddy admit that he'd assaulted little Janet and that she was the only woman he ever really wanted. For closure, Daddy had to be punished.

The virtual reality I settled on was fairly mundane. Janet would be assigned by a secret organization to question Daddy. She would be disguised as a prostitute, would seduce Daddy, would handcuff Daddy to the bedpost, and would force him to admit that he had been compelled to copulate with other women by the members of one of the cartels. Once that first admission had come out, she would have to get him to admit his history with and feelings for Janet. She would the reveal her identity to him, and he would beg her to take his life.

The scenario would be entirely projected—entirely virtual—until we cut into otherspace. Janet snapping the cuffs on Daddy would provide the motion analogue to drive us into otherspace. From that point on, Charlie would alter Janet's visuals so that the goal gate looked just like Daddy (actually, like Daddy just the way she wanted him). This should be a pretty tame ride as such things went. Any othershoals would appear to Janet as obstacles between her and Daddy—furniture, interruptions from phones, knocks at the door. A violent magnetic otherstorm might be projected as an interruption by members of the satanic cult. Janet, of course, would be prepared for such eventualities. Firing her concealed pistol would like the ship's candles. Daddy's first admission (forced copulation with other women) would be Charlie's signal to prep the crew for return to normal space. The second admission ("You're the only one Janet. You were too young for me to do that too you, but you're the only woman I've ever loved.") would be the final signal that we're entering the gate. Daddy's death—Janet driving home the knife—would fire the mag-cannon to open the exit gate and the forward thrusters to take us through.

Any complications arising along the route would require some ad-libbing. Mostly, this was Janet's job. She would see and interpret any occurrence as appropriate to her own sense of causality and respond appropriately, but it always helps to have an invisible angel on your shoulder to kibbutz. That was my job. I would be capable of only minor manipulations in her reality (I could, say, nudge a weapon into reach if an adversary appeared—the analog to which would be to prepare to fire thrusters—which thrusters on what vector Janet would determine by her position). We would be relying primarily on Janet's overwhelming need to pry those words from Daddy and kill him in just that way (knife thrust as reverse rape analog) to get three hundred metric tons of vanadium through otherspace.

Pretty typical stuff, really—nauseating, but typical. That simplicity and familiarity mad me suspicious. Janet Coombs was anything but typical. Carter and Tyson would have come up with similar scenarios, and look what happened to them. Suspecting opies of ulterior motives at every turn is paranoid, but in some fields,  paranoiacs live longer. As Socrates tried to tell young Phaedrus, insanity is not stupidity.

"Charlie, keep me on blind, but give me Janet on screen."

There was Janet. Without the dulling of the tropes, she was pretty, petite, auburn haired, and green-eyed. She had an engaging smile. She was just sitting there, apparently absorbed with walking two fingers across her body—a little headless man strolling over two round hills. All at once, she dropped her walking hand, looked right into the camera, right into my eyes, and grinned. Then she blew me a kiss.

I shivered. "Charlie, am I on blind?"

"As per your instructions, sir."

Clever Janet, I thought. You probably just guessed that I should be checking in right about now. I breathed a sigh of relief. She was still in the straps. She was just trying to rattle me. If she thought she could frighten me, she must think she's in control. Clearly, this wasn't the case.

I waited a moment while my heart rate dropped back to normal, chuckling to myself for having let her fluster me. "Okay, Charlie, standard opening: wake her from this crazy day dream."

I tapped my readout: 1625 hours. We'd only taken five hours to get through de-troping, questioning, and plot construction. We still had a leisurely eleven hours to set up the virtual sequence to maneuver Janet into a room with Daddy.

Suddenly I was standing in a room with a large bed and mirrored ceiling. I glanced around, but—no Janet.

What gives? I should have been seeing Janet coming out of a daydream, seated at a table on the patio of a small downtown cafe. That was the scenario.

The door to the room entered, and in walked Janet. She was dressed in a lacy black silk babydoll, and she was leading a man by the wrist.

"Come on now, Sweety," Janet said to the man," I won't bite. That costs extra."

I tapped up my time: 1627. "What the fuck's going on, Charlie? Why are we already in the brothel?"

Charlie said, "Sequence proceeding according to plot."

"Bullshit!" I hissed. "We were supposed to start in the goddamn cafe. She has to receive her instructions."

"She has her instructions," Charlie said.

"What?" was all I could think to ask. "Are you out of your germanium-silicone mind?" Then I saw the face of Janet's customer. He was me. O shit.

"Let me help you out of those tight trousers, Jack." Janet slid down to her knees before the other me. How did I get into this construct? I was supposed to be the invisible entity.

I felt something tugging at my waist, looked down to see Janet smiling up at me and taking down my pants. Perspective shift.

I closed my eyes and shouted, "Charlie, get me the fuck out of here!"

(part four)

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Otherwise (part two)

And we're back. Here's part two. Enjoy.
Otherwise
(cont.)

Janet Coombs—a director who had been selected to opie status after a schizophrenic episode (waste not, want not)—had somehow escaped her piloting chamber on board the IOS Hart Crane just before othertransit. The rescue crew boarding the Hart Crane a few days later found Janet huddled in a corner of a cargo bay, caked with blood. The thirty-seven crew members and one hundred eighty passengers were dead of a creative combination of poisoning, asphyxiation, and stab wounds.

"We were very upset," Mr. Lawson of Interstel assured me. Lars Lawson was fat and bald and had sweaty lips. "We fully intend to turn Janet over to the authorities, break this story to the media, and pay double insurance to all the families of the deceased passengers and crew."

"Once our current crisis is past, of course," said the woman in the ugly brown suit (cubist holographic epaulets if you can believe that).

I leaned back in my desk chair and asked my bar for a Scotch and soda. A good host would have offered drinks to his guests, bet these two weren't bringing out my hospitable side. I'd been asleep on the sofa when they rang the bell. I'm always a bit grumpy when I wake up. Besides, I'd twisted my ankle rushing to answer the door. "Crisis?" I asked, testing my drink.

"Well—your vanadium shipment to Adler-Messmer, Mr. McClintock," said the fat man,. "That vanadium is absolutely vital—"

I nodded. "To both our pocketbooks. Which, I suppose, is why you sent Janet Coombs up on a second flight. Considering how little you knew about how the first incident unfolded, wasn't that a bit moronic?"

Lawson's voice cracked and his lip quivered. "She was the only otherpilot available. We're not scheduled to see another opie in here for a month. We took precautions. The IOS Annabelle Lee carried a minimum crew and no passengers, and we put armed guards on the pilot chamber."

I smiled. "But, did the crew know what she'd done to the Hart Crane?"

Lawson sighed and slumped. No need for an answer.

The woman in the ugly suit broke in. "The guards were warned that she could be extremely dangerous, and not to trust the tropes. They were to shoot if she left her chamber. You're correct, Mr. McClintock, we don't know what happened on either ship. She disabled and erased the ships' AI memory banks."

"So even the director wasn't informed?"

Fatboy shook his head.

"You can't say you weren't warned. I've told Interstel repeatedly not to use people like Janet. A mind that goes from eighty-plus points about the New Albany Regents norm to seventy-five below can't be trusted."

Uglysuit scowled and let out a gravelly sigh.

I looked from her to him and back. "So, what's the plan now?"

"We send her up again," the woman said.

I blinked. "Wow. What a fascinating mind you have. Ever considered a career in othership piloting?"

The woman stood and crossed her arms. "This time, we will inform the director—and the ship's officers. We have devised a set of backup security measures aid the director in protecting the crew from Ms. Coombs."

"We also plan to bring the best available director on board for this shootthrough," Lars said, smiling.

I drank down the last of my Scotch. "Unfortunately, Carter was the best, and Tyson was the best working director within five lights of Barnard, so you've pretty much screwed yourselves. I know of only three other directors currently available in Spock."

Uglysuit nodded, frowning. "None of those three has any real experience, and all of them have fairly mediocre test scores."

"No one you'd want to trust with dear little Janet."

Uglysuit referred to the screen on her wrist. "According to our records, you retired from Interstel five years ago. That's pretty young for retirement."

"Not from directing. At five years, the odds of my next trip causing a psychotic break are better than 1 in three. Not good odds. Saps who stay in for over five years end up like Janet."

Ugly suit relaxed, smiling a bit, now. "Still, you retired young and with a final test score of ninety-six sagans above the NAR. That's even better than Carter's."

"Whoa, Sweetheart, I'm retired, remember? I quit working with opies five years ago. Crazy people make my skin crawl. I'm no longer a director. Remember me? I'm the customer, for fuck's sake. Mine is the richest vanadium operation in this arm of the galaxy, and I never need to do any real work again. Or to put it more simply and directly: no."

Lars sat quietly watching. It was clear that Uglysuit was the negotiator. She said, "Look, McClintock, this is an extremely important operation—yes, partly because so many steel mills desperately need that vanadium to produce otherspace-ready hulls—but also because of the nature of this problem. Janet's attacks are the first ever violent incidents involving an opie. The first, and they were the grandmother and grandfather of all incidents. Hell, we don't even know what happened. If this story gets out before we know what happened, before we can offer a solution, it could do irreparable damage to interface piloting. This mess could wind up isolating five hundred inhabited worlds from FTL travel for God-knows-how-long. We're looking at a potential interstellar economic collapse, so don't sit there with that sarcastic half-smile, being glib and witty, and trying to score points on the oneupmanship scale. We need you. What do you need?"

I looked at Lawson, who was smiling a rather sickly green smile and nodding. So, Lawson represented Interstel's money, and he knew he was about to take a shellacking.

Thirty-seven percent chance of a psychotic break.

Look! Up in the sky! It' a need! It's a want! No, it's greedy man! What can I say? Everyone has a price. One thirty-five-earthyear contract later—exempting McClintock Mining from all tariffs, taxes, and licensing fees, and guaranteeing a forty-percent discount on interstellar shipping—I was napping in a tricked-out director's chair and waiting for 1202 hours.

Yeah. I'm pretty sure I'm insane.

(part three)

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Otherwise (part one)

Okay, I'm still looking for readers. If you enjoy contemporary/urban fiction, drop me a line, I'll send you the first three chapters. All I need is a commitment from you to tell me, after you're done, what you thought of the novel.

Meanwhile, as promised, here's the first part of my novellette, "Otherwise." (This story, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in the Winter 1993 issue of Aboriginal Science Fiction.)


Otherwise

I must be insane.

I remember thinking that at the outset of the trip as I sat testing the fit of my v-suit: fingers, balls of feet, butt cheeks. When I'd settled into the seat, straps—titanium mesh straps, no less—had snaked out to wrap and buckle me. This was just crazy. They always strap in the opies; the never strap in the director. I mean, really, you don't have to be insane to be a director—just to be an opie. Everybody knows that, right?

Not that I'd call directing opies exactly a sane profession. Like most, I was attracted by the combination of the challenge and the filthy lucre. It's a dangerous job, and it pays accordingly. Contact with otherspace—even filtered through the ship's AI—takes its toll. With a 17% chance of a director having a psychotic break in the first three earthyears of otherspace service, a chance that increases by 10% per year thereafter, Interstel has no choice but to pay through the nose. Like most directors, I'd spent five earthyears amassing my fortune in otherspace and gotten out with my sanity.

Yet here I was again after five earthyears—three as a civilian citizen of Barnard-c's Spock City—snugging up a v-helmet, hooking on a kinesthetic collar, tapping my right earlobe to bring up the time readout on my HUD.

"71/3/5 – 11:00:32.77" read the neon green HUD numbers in the upper right corner of my vision. I verified the date and time against my console screen. After the usual two seconds, the HUD winked out.

"Bridge to director," said a female voice in my left ear, "opie prepared for contact and injection. We'll be ready for shoot-through at 0300 hours. The captain recommends you take your time. Let us know if you need the target time moved back."

"Aye, Bridge," I said. "Understand I am to be ready for transit at 0300 hours. No anticipated delay. Director out."

"Okay, Charlie," I said to the AI, "let's see our pilot."

The image of a small woman in a v-suit and helmet, strapped into a chair much like mine, appeared on my console screen. She smiled calmly and squinted her eyes in what looked like a studious manner, but I'm sure that was just the tropes. I doubt she was considering anything more complex than her reflection on the screen.

"Open conference," I said. A bell tone answered, and I asked, "Well, Janet, are you ready to come out? We're all set to inject."

"Mmmm. Okay. Thanks, Jack." She actually smiled. Troped opies are always like that. I'll never understand why they're always so ready to have their brain chemistry screwed up and fired back into schizophrenia. I guess, considering the zombie look most of them have, I'd agree, too, if it meant a chance to feel again.

"Shoot her up, Charlie," I said, and noted a tiny sympathy pain in my ankle (horrid place to inject). "Blind conference, Charlie." The bell answered again. "Give her one hour, Charlie, and then start the questioning. I'm going to nap a bit. Feeling kind of tired."

"I will wake you at 1202 hours, Mr. McClintock."

"Thanks, Charlie. Skipper gave us sixteen hours to establish our plot. Her primary delusion manifests as all men being disguised versions of her father. She thinks she was raped by Daddy as a child. Last time I worked with her, Janet believed all women were uncontrollably drawn to Daddy. Verify all this. We don't have bios for her last to otherjaunts, so I need to know if anything has changed. Anything."

"Yes, sir," Charlie said. No curiosity or surprise over missing trip records. Typical AI. Of course, that's why AIs can't pilot otherspace—their thinking is too linear. A damn fast AI, reading inputs from magnetic and gravitic scanners, should be able to keep the ship from cracking on an othershoal, but when the AI's uncensored, heuristically programmed mind notes that, in other space, the number three thruster reverses ship's trajectory, it expects that to work every time. Not in otherspace. Otherspace scoffs at linear thinking, at cause and effect, at concepts of present, past, and future.

I relaxed, watching Janet, and let myself drift toward sleep. Janet would also be sleeping shortly. The antitrope shot makes them drowsy for the first half-hour or so. She just lay there, peacefully conversing with Charlie, looking not the least bit like a mass murderer. They never do.

Five years since I'd done this, and—except for the straps—it felt like yesterday. In the interim, I'd spent an earthyear hopping around to some of the more interesting settled worlds, settled down in Spock City, invested my bonuses, and built a respectable mining company. Not much had changed. The straps were a special add for this particular opie. The new drugs were faster. We used to have to wait five hours after popping the opie before we could start the interrogation and plot. Now we can do it in an hour. They call it progress. I'll call it progress when we don't need opies. Driving a thousand-ton ship through the storms, flares, and shoals of otherspace based on directions from a delusional schizophrenic is like juggling rattlesnakes to build up your forearms.

I always knew something would go wrong.

Otherspace just isn't a comfortable place for human travelers. An uncensored pilot enters otherspace with few visible clues (overlap, maybe; perspective, no) telling him how far away the goal gate is or when the ship will reach it. Also, just because the trek from Epsilon Eridani to Sol took fifteen hours last time doesn't mean it won't be fifteen days next time. The pilot has to scan incoming data from the AI and not hallucinate under the influence of all the pretty colors, not lose track when time randomly disappears or stretches, not lose sight of the correct gate as six-dimensional stones the size of aircraft carriers fly at him, not become flustered when a retro propels him forward or a magnetic candle bends light or cutting a jet cancels gravity or just does nothing. If the pilot were the typical white-toothed, high-GPA, napkin-in-lap, Star Academy graduate, he has about a twenty-five percent chance of cracking the ship on an othershoal or frying half the ship's complement in an otherflare. He also has only one chance in three of completing the trip in his right mind.

Not the sort of news that boosts ticket sales.

Interstellar travel was dying at its inception, strangling in the umbilicus of otherspace, when some genius at Interstel invented interface piloting: an opie riding a delusion, an AI supporting the delusion by moderating sensory inputs via a virtual reality suit, and a director telling the AI how to moderate the inputs. A symbiotic relationship of the cybernetic and intellectual sort. The opie, unperturbed by violations of causality, achieves (virtually) whatever goal he most desires. The director guides the metaphoric reality through which the opie pilots the ship without ever directly encountering otherspace. The AI provides virtual views of otherspace and creates a buffer between opie and director to prevent psychotic projection. The ship gets through every time. In thirty earthyears of interface piloting, not a single crew member had been harmed by otherspace travel (discounting the unlucky few directors who stuck with the job too long and lost their minds), not a single passenger endangered.

Enter Janet Coombs.

(part two)

Monday, October 15, 2012

Wanted: Readers

Okay, so much for follow-through. You may recall, at the end of June I had taken down my copy of "The Other Lessons of Phaedrus" and was about to transcribe the story into this space. At that point, for all intents and purposes, I dropped off the face of the blogosphere.

Sorry.

I dropped the ball.

Sort of. Actually, while I was preparing to transcribe the story and reviewing possible title change, my mind kept wandering. I'd had a dream the night before. It was a recurring dream but one I hadn't had in over a year. As I started rethinking the dream and rearranging scenes in my head, I started thinking of variations on the dream. Next thing I knew, I was writing a novel. I had spinal surgery scheduled for August 7th, but I really wasn't thinking of that when I started writing.

Suddenly, the end of July was approaching, and I had over sixty thousand words. I had out-written the NaNoWriMo requirement in less than a month, and I still wasn't finished with the novel. I finished the rough draft on Saturday (right around 72,000 words), August 4th, the weekend before my surgery. After a week in the hospital and another in a rehab hospital, they sent me home—sorer, straighter, and taller. I asked my wife to read the rough draft. She did. She was brutal.

Now, two months later, I've almost finished revising (I have two chapters I might want to rework still), and the novel, The New Girls, is just shy of 100,000 words. I think I've corrected the problems my wife identified. I've asked my daughter the budding author in the UI creative writing program to read it, but she's pretty busy. I know she's read a couple chapters, but I haven't heard much from her. I don't want to turn it over to my wife again so soon. I want to pass it by a few more readers first. My friend Jan has nearly finished reading a copy, and a friend at UT has agreed to read it and has provided one additional reader.

So, before I get around to reproducing "The Other Lessons," I need to get some closure on this novel. I need more readers. I especially need male readers, but I'll happily share the novel with anyone who will read the novel and offer an honest assessment.

The New Girls is a contemporary, urban fantasy novel about gender change: four very different men wake and find themselves female, and there's a little matter of a curse.

Act now while it's still free (essentially—it'll cost you sharing your email address with me and a promise of a written response of whatever size and detail you can manage).