Double Trouble

by James R. Stratton

 

Mary flashed into the transmat booth surrounded by the darkness of the night. She spun in the close space to survey her favorite place in all the world. A mixed crowd swirled by the dim light of the booth, the marks on their way to the clubs, half-dressed pros hustling the crowd and the geeks looking for a score. She felt her heart pulse as she drank it in. Here came a woman in a sheer silver dress laughing as her date’s eyes wandered over her. There was a huddled knot of college kids chattering as they tried to watch everything at once. The people walked by in singles, couples and groups, all with faces glowing. Mary smiled. I live all week for this just like you.

A street walker sidled up to the college kids. Would they bolt? Maybe they’d surprise her and do some business. Shouting, the prostitute chased the kids up the street. Wrong, wrong, you’ll never make it like that, Mary thought. You’re wasting your time if you can’t get punks like that to come to you.

Mary’s mood crashed and she thought of dialing herself home. She’d asked Leslie and Joan to join her, but they’d passed.

Finally she shook her head as if dark thoughts were dandruff to be shaken off. “It’s Friday night!” she shouted at the half-moon peeking from behind an old brick town house. “I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar! No twelve-hour shifts, no tight-assed customers with their shitty tips.” She grinned at people staring. “No work ’til Sunday brunch, and I get to make this town jump and shout ’til then.”

She slid her finger up the coin return slot of the booth, pulled on her headphones and slapped the door-release button. Her favorite band, Action! Action! Action!, blared in her earphones as she boogied up the street. Mary smiled at the people she passed as she moved her 240 pounds vigorously in time with the music. Her breasts and butt bounced in counterpoint rhythm to the rest of her.

People paused and watched Mary strut by, most smiling with her. One old couple frowned their disapproval at her; Mary gave them the finger. Mary didn’t stop at the newest clubs at the top of the block. They never let her through the velvet rope. But further down were her kind of night spots; cheap and sleazy. Her one-woman parade halted when Mary found her way blocked by a great slab of a man. He towered over her, her head just came to the middle of the hairy chest peeking out of his Hawaiian shirt. “What can I do for you, big fellow?”

Overhead a holographic sign declared this to be the Easy Come Saloon. Mary frowned. A new club. Down here? Alerted by sensors that eyes were focused its way, the sign’s artificial intelligence lased images directly to her retinas of dancers inside.

The big doorman’s lips moved as he pointed inside. Mary heard not a word, her blasting music drowned out everything. But his meaning was clear enough. Through the entrance, Mary could see glistening dancers under flashing lights. She licked her lips and grinned. “Thanks for the invite. I do believe I will!”

Inside, Mary slid onto a barstool. A thrill ran through her as she looked the club over. The music blasted so that she could feel it on her chest. The lighting was dim and the air hazy, scented with sweat and herb smoke. She shivered. This was her destination for the night! She could smell the animal tension in the air. All around, people sat alone staring at the dancers or in tight knots wrapped up in each other. Mary breathed deep and gripped the edge of the bar. This is how it should be on Friday night in a hot new club. She could feel a knot of tension grind up her back, just like her days on the runway.

Once Mary had danced up the street at the Jericho Club. Every night, she got drunk on that special power as she made marks sweat with just a smile. They used to throw handfuls of cash to make her stop and chat for just a moment. Her nights on the runway had been like a lusty circus, a nonstop no-drug high. But dancing is hard physical work, meant for the young, tight kids. Mary glanced at her sagging breasts and big butt. Nobody pays to see a fat broad stagger around half naked.

A male dancer, strutting along the combination bar and runway, stopped in front of her to do the bump-and-grind wearing nothing but a tiny silk loin cloth. Mary smiled up at his oiled thighs. She winked and blew him kisses until he stepped closer, then yanked the silk away. The dancer hopped back and glared. “Aw, don’t be mad,” Mary pouted and waved a bill. He flipped her the bird as a heavyset, bald bartender walked over. “You got a problem, lady?”

Mary laughed and pounded the bar. “Yeah, I don’t got a goddamn drink.” She flipped the silk cloth across the bar. “Gimme a Russian Stinger.”

“Easy, lady! Easy. I know how to make a stinger, but what’s the Russian part?”

“You add 10 milligrams of speed. And make it snappy. My throat’s as dry as an old bone.”

“Cool,” he said. “But don’t be taking liberties with the artistes. I’ll have to bounce you out otherwise.” Mary winked. She turned to the guy next to her and smiled a friendly smile.

*****

At 3 A.M., Mary still sat at the bar nursing her last Russian Stinger. The music was off, the lights were up, and the dancers were gone. The clink of empty glasses being cleared away tolled the end of the night. Mary glared as a couple floated out arm in arm. Damn it! I’m not going home alone.

The bartender walked over and nodded at the clock. “Last call. You want another?”

“Nah, I’m tapped out.”

“Don’t sweat it, sweet cheeks.” He slid a drink across the bar. “On the house.”

Mary gulped the drink and looked him over. He’s fat, bald and sweaty, but what the hell. Even if he does make a lousy Russian Stinger. She grimaced at the bitter aftertaste.

As she fluffed her hair and spritzed, Mary realized he hadn’t taken his eyes off her. Isn’t he the eager beaver? She raised her hand to wave, but the room lurched sideways instead. Son of a bitch! She clutched the edge of the bar. I didn’t drink that much, goddamnit! I can’t afford to. Darkness fell as the floor swept up. Mary was next aware of being dragged down a long hallway by her arms. “Sonofabitch!” she slurred as her heels bumped on concrete. The light faded again.

Cloying darkness pressed on her when awareness returned. She jerked and could feel straps restraining her arms and legs. A rotten meat smell made her stomach roil as she felt needle-pricks of panic whisper up her back. She’d lived enough years at the edge of society to know what kind of bad craziness existed out beyond. Light flared and Mary was confronted by a skinny, dark-haired woman standing by the door across the gray concrete cubical.

The woman stared vaguely in Mary’s direction as she chewed her thumb. Her eyes settled on Mary. “I’m glad to see you’re awake,” she whispered. “I was worried we’d start without you. I hope you’re afraid. You really should be.” The woman giggled like she’d made a joke.

Great, a nut case. A quick glance told Mary she was in deep shit. She sat in a solid wooden chair with heavy canvas straps binding her arms and legs. Her breath felt trapped in her chest as her mind spun. She’d heard tales of lock-box sex shops where the women were just kidnap victims, never to be seen again. Am I going to come out of this alive? Mary turned to look around and the room whirled. Too much booze, speed, and whatever they slipped you. You’re riding too damn many drugs.

Mary squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself to focus. “Okay, honey,” Mary said in a flat tone. “I don’t know what your game is, but I’m not playing. Turn me loose and I’ll be on my way.”

The woman giggled. “No, you don’t understand. You need to understand.” She walked behind Mary and pushed. The chair rolled through the door. In the next room, Mary was confronted with a heavy steel frame bolted between concrete pillars. Strapped to it was a naked, heavyset woman. Shit! What kind of creep-show is this? Mary stared as hot and cold waves washed over her. Then she burst out laughing. She’s me, bound and gagged!

“You jerk. This is a stunt! You think you can scare me with dummies and holograms?”

Mary’s last job had been at The Roman Coliseum. Using live actors, fake blood and cattle parts, they staged an act where “the victim” got hacked up on stage, three times a night. The show was a huge success, but low pay for the actors.

“You’re wasting your time, honey. I’ve seen it done by pros.” The woman’s gaze fluttered about as a gaunt man wearing shorts and a mask wheeled in a cart. Gleaming blades lay in precise rows on green cloth.

“Hey ass wipe!” Mary shouted. “Cut me loose NOW! I’m not some whore you hire for your jollies.” Consciousness faded before she heard his response.

When she returned, Mary found the woman and the man slicing off the woman’s ears, nose, and tongue. The thing on the rack shrieked and blood spurted with great effect. Grinning, Mary tried to catch a slip in the act, but consciousness faded again. When she next awoke, they were peeling off the last of the victim’s skin as it hooted. The flayed hide made a moist sucking noise as it pulled away from the meat underneath. Damn, it looks real! Mary’s stomach knotted in sympathy. Blackness descended. When consciousness returned, the man and woman were rolling naked on the floor atop blood and tissue, their limbs twined.

“You bastards! Turn me loose! You snatched me for this? You’ll pay, I swear.”

The man turned in mid-thrust and glared as Mary ranted. Finally he stood among the blood-spattered detritus and walked over. “You stupid cow!” he lisped. “This isn’t a game!”

Mary sneered. “Take the hint, jerk! I’m not buying it.” She slammed her weight to one side so the heavy chair reared up on two legs. The man grasped Mary’s arm and pushed the chair down. Mary realized at once he must have grabbed something wrong because the strap on her arm slackened. She yanked her arm free, whipped her fist into his face and he fell over backwards. Across the room, the woman jumped up and slipped in the slick blood. Mary scrabbled at the straps until she was standing free with the man couched before her. Mary drop-kicked him in the chin. He flipped over and his head bounced on the floor. Glancing at the woman, Mary grinned. That one owes me pain. She stalked around the edge of the blood as the woman squirmed toward the door. Mary jerked her around by a handful of hair and snapped three quick punches into the woman’s face. She cried and huddled against the wall until Mary turned away disgusted.

Mary considered the thing on the rack. It was bloody meat. Skating across the muck, Mary approached from behind, looking for the dummy under the meat. Nothing. Sliding to the front, she moved closer until she was inches away. Still nothing. She poked the leg and the raw, red muscles jerked.

“Ohmygod,” Mary whispered as she stared into the dry eyeballs. Her stomach clenched and she vomited. It isn’t a dummy, it’s warm and bleeding. But I saw her, it was me.

Retching, she turned away and fell in the bloody muck. A sudden foot’s-asleep numbness swept over her as the floor tilted and rolled. Come on, girl. You’ve got to get out of here. You lose it now and you’re dead. She staggered across the room and out the door. After stumbling through a series of corridors she crashed through a heavy steel door onto a narrow street. Spotting the familiar glow of a transmat, Mary stumbled in and punched a number. The world flashed and she was at her favorite place, downtown. She walked stiff-legged to the steps of a townhouse and sat.

Dawn’s light found her still sitting there. Her mouth was dry as dust as her heart thumped in her chest. The butchered woman hanging from steel was vivid in her mind.

She considered calling the cops. But what could she say? “I saw myself murdered last night?” Right! They’ll lock me up and let the shrinks worry about the story. But I saw myself on the frame, touched myself. It was me, right down to the tattoos and purple nail polish.

She rubbed the tiredness from her eyes and grunted. She’d heard lewd jokes forever about transmats duplicating people. Hell, there’d even been stories in the news about scientists trying to do just that. So, what if it’s true?

The pain and terror in that woman’s eyes washed over her, threatening to drown her. She was alive. I left her hanging on a butcher’s rack. How long will she last?

She stared at the red smear on the back of her hand and another thought came. Whose blood? Mine or… mine?

She shivered as she stared. Whose blood? Whose body? If it was real, did those freaks put the copy on the frame or me? Should that make a difference?

She felt a blazing knot of fury bloom and settle cold in her gut. Goddamn right it makes a difference! It’s my life they messed with.

The ball of rage shimmered incandescent for an instant and her jaw tightened until her teeth hurt. “I want answers. And I won’t rest ’til I get ’em.”

So how do I get to them? The fat, bald bartender at the Easy Come, he knows something. And I bet I can get him to tell. Grunting, she pushed herself up and turned to the transmat booth, images of the copied body on the slab racing through her head.

“Damn it! I don’t got no time for sad thoughts. It’s my night to roar!”

Mary clenched her fist until her knuckles popped.

Yeah, like a little bird, he’ll sing.

 

Helen’s Journey

by James R. Stratton

 

Helen slammed open the front door, dropped her purse and shoes on the floor, and wiggled her toes in thick carpet soft as a kitten’s fur. Today, she felt its touch like a sensuous caress. A surprise! They’d waited so long! She glanced around the room grinning.

“Sam! Sam, where are you?” A paint-spattered young man walked up the hall opposite her with a wet brush in his hand. Helen smiled. “Guess what?”

Sam just smiled back and shook his head.

“I just come from Dr. Bloomberg’s. We’re gonna have a baby!”

She laughed as Sam’s mouth dropped open, and her joy broke free. Shouting, she skipped across the room, grabbed his neck and scissored her legs around his waist. Sam whirled her around and around. He was warm and moist from working, so she snuggled close and licked a bit of saltiness from his neck.

“My god, that’s wonderful!” Sam whispered. “I can’t believe we are finally going to be parents. Is it going to be a boy or a girl?”

Helen released her grip and slid away. “I wouldn’t sign for any of them tests.”

She tensed but wouldn’t meet his gaze. He’d have just confused her if she argued and her mind was made up.

“Honey, you know he’ll have to make a report to the State. We don’t want that kind of trouble. Besides, the doctors can help if there’s a problem.”

“Not always!” she said, louder than she intended. “You know my momma lost three babies before she had me. And my sister had one taken by the State before the third month just last year. It’s taken me eight years to get pregnant. What if they want to take this one? No way! We’re gonna have this baby no matter what!”

She glared at him until he looked away and felt bad at once. He just wanted her happy. Stepping closer, she clasped his hand. “Come on, this’ll be a good thing. You’ll see. And don’t worry about Dr. Bloomberg. He’s an old fashion doc who never liked all them rules. He promised not to say a thing.” Sam just grunted and turned away.

She frowned at his back, then grinned. The muscles in his butt bunched and shifted under his thin shorts. She loved the look of his behind, the feel of it in her hands when they made love. She tiptoed up behind him and slid both hands into his shorts. “Guess what I’m in the mood for?”

“Hey, come on!” Sam laughed and rose on his toes. “I’m all covered with paint.”

“So? You better get it while you can. I may not be in the mood much once I’m big and fat.”

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Are you awake?”

She opened her eyes to find a tall, red-haired woman in a blue blazer standing by her bed.

“I’m Susan Smith-Johnson, a social worker with the Division of Child Protective Services. Has the doctor talked to you about your son’s problems?”

Helen nodded and squeezed her eyes against the tears. This was going to be the happiest moment of her life. She’d dreamed of this day. Just moments ago she was lying motionless in the bed, drinking in the feel of her son—wet and warm, squirming on her breast—and inhaling his sweet-sour baby smell.

But the bright joy had chopped off when Dr. Bloomberg and the nurses crowded around. “Jesus, he’s defective,” one whispered. Dr. Bloomberg seized Josh and ran from the room. A numbness had whispered through her, dulling her senses and clouding her thoughts.

Helen opened her eyes and stared at the social worker. She rubbed at the tightness in her belly. Nothing was going as she’d dreamed and now it was turning into a nightmare.

“Mrs. Borland, the Division was contacted because of the unusual circumstances of your son’s birth. Children being born with handicaps are very rare these days. Children with multiple handicaps like Joshua are unheard of. This is an issue of grave concern to the State.”

Needle-pricks whispered across her chest. “Where’s my husband? I want Sam here before I talk.”

“He’s speaking with my assistant, Mr. Philip.” Ms. Smith-Johnson held up a thick folder. “I’ve reviewed your medical file. You refused all prenatal testing during your pregnancy against your doctor’s advice. Is that correct?”

She thought of denying everything, playing dumb. Anger at this woman snooping into her records bubbled nearby. No matter, the lady already knew. Helen’s head barely moved when she nodded. “What’s that got to do with you?”

Ms. Smith-Johnson glanced over the paper in her hand. “The Division is charged by statute with the duty of investigating whenever a parent doesn’t provide adequate care for a child. In Joshua’s case, that would include any necessary medical care.”

Helen thrust herself up. “It’s none of the State’s damn business. Sam and I will see to Joshua’s needs, handicapped or not.”

The social worker shook her head. “It’s too late for that. You’ve already deprived him of certain critical care.”

“What are you talking about?” Helen asked. “Josh was just born.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson stared before speaking. “Surely you know the law? Legally, Joshua was a separate individual since the end of the first trimester of your pregnancy. He was a life-in-being with all the rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution. When you refused the normal prenatal tests, you acted contrary to Joshua’s interests.”

Helen lay back and stared at the woman. “It’s my body. I have the right to say no if I want.”

“Perhaps.”

Helen could see that concession came reluctantly.

“Your doctor should have reported your refusal months ago when we could have done something for Joshua.” Ms. Johnson-Smith smiled briefly. “I’ll be filing a formal complaint against Dr. Bloomberg with the state medical board.”

Helen shivered. Damn! Dr. Bloomberg was in trouble because of her? “What good would the tests have done, anyway? Maybe they could have done something about the heart valve thing, but they can’t cure Down’s Syndrome. They’d have to take the baby. I won’t allow it.”

“Allow it! That’s exactly the problem here.” Ms. Smith-Johnson stared. “Joshua is not your personal property to be done with as you see fit. The Supreme Court ruled years ago in the Kevorkian Society cases that everybody has a fundamental right to self-determination of life. That includes pre-born citizens like Joshua. He should have had a guardian ad litem appointed to act for him and a decision made on his behalf on his future. You’ve robbed him of that choice.”

Helen hid a small smile behind her hand. You didn’t know and now it’s too late. Josh is mine! She turned away and stared at the opposite wall.

“So what do you and your husband plan to do? Joshua is going to have a lot of special needs.”

Helen shook her head without looking back. “I don’t know. Sam and I haven’t had a chance to talk. I suppose there are programs for kids like Josh.” Helen glanced back when Ms. Smith-Johnson laughed.

“There were programs like that back when you were born. But that was when there were tens of thousands of handicapped children born each year. Last year there were 121 children born in the United States with a classified handicap. Funding for those kinds of programs ended ten years ago. There just isn’t a need. Federal and State money today goes to prenatal testing and in utero treatment.”

“So? Sam and I don’t have a lot of money. We can’t give him stuff we can’t afford.” Helen felt the cold pricks of fear again.

Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped closer to the side of the bed. “The State still operates a residential facility at Woodburn for special needs citizens like Joshua. It’s staffed with specialists in the medical and mental health fields. All of Joshua’s needs could be met there. Of course, you and your husband would have to surrender custody to the State.”

“What!” Helen gasped. “My baby isn’t a day old and you want to take him? So you can send him to an orphanage? Are you crazy or just stupid? If he needs any help, you can give it to him in my home.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson shook her head. “There are only ten clients at Woodburn, all with severe handicaps like Joshua’s. The cost of operating a program like that with our clients scattered across the State would be prohibitive. Joshua will get the best care available in the State there. And you and your husband would be entitled to liberal visitation.”

Helen shook her head violently. “No! I won’t give him up. I’m his momma, for Christ’s sake. Now go away. Sam and I can take care of Josh without your help, if needs be.”

Ms. Smith-Johnson slid a business card onto the nightstand, then walked to the door. “As the parents, you and your husband have the right to custody of Joshua so long as you provide for his needs. But the Division will be opening a case and a worker will be visiting regularly. I think you’ll want to reconsider once you understand what’s involved in caring for a child like Joshua. My number is on the card.”

The social worker pushed through the swinging door to the room. Helen glared at the door. The State can stick it! Josh was her baby. They had no right.

*****

Helen jerked awake when Joshua patted her arm. She gazed around the living room to get her bearings. Across the room the television murmured softly. Her eyes began to water from the bright sunlight slanting through the living room blinds.

After a minute, Joshua began to whine and tug at her arm. “Easy, Josh. Mommy will get breakfast in a minute. She doesn’t feel well.” Helen glanced down at her son. Softly, he began to chant, “Da-da-da-da-da.”

“No, honey. You don’t go to see Daddy until Friday.” Josh just chanted louder.

Sam, you bastard. You couldn’t even stick it out six months.

But it had been worse for him than her. She had to endure the stares and whispers from the playground moms when she took Josh out. God, they were witches! They’d treated Josh like he had a disease, and asked her right to her face why she’d let Josh be born this way. But that was okay. Josh was a joy, so being alone wasn’t so bad.

But Sam had come home from work day after day angry and sad. His co-workers had asked over and over how he could allow it, why he hadn’t done something. And then he’d come home one day seething. The promotion Sam had been counting on had gone to another guy, the fellow Sam had trained. His boss had told him privately he wasn’t likely to ever get another promotion. There was too much talk about him and his freak baby.

“I don’t have a life anymore! I work two jobs but I can’t make ends meet. We spend everything on doctors for Josh. The neighbors won’t talk to us and the people at work think we’re sick. I can’t live like this! I can’t go on with nothing to look forward to but this day after day. Maybe we should talk to that social worker about the home, at least for a while.”

She snatched Josh up and backed away. “No! Never! How will we get him back if they get him? We can’t afford the fancy treatments they have. They’d keep him forever.”

Sam clutched the air in front of her as his face twisted. “Honey, please. We’ve got to do something. We don’t have a life anymore, you and I. And I’m wrung out.”

She’d screamed and pleaded and Sam had backed away. But two weeks later he packed his bags and moved out. The divorce papers had arrived months later.

Helen sat on the sofa as tears burned in her eyes. “You shouldn’t have given up. This is our boy, we would have gotten through it somehow.” Helen welcomed the phone’s chirp, something to distract her.

“Did I have an appointment yesterday?… I know Josh needs to see his heart doctor regular… Look, I’m sorry, I thought it was next week!… Well, when can we reschedule?… What do you mean it doesn’t matter?… Hello? Hello?”

She was calling the doctor’s office back when someone hammered on the door. Josh jerked and squealed as Helen padded to the door. Glancing in the mirror at the entrance she shook her head. “Be quiet, Josh. Maybe they’ll go away. We aren’t ready for company this morning.”

The door shuddered under another series of blows and Josh squealed. A deep voice called out, “Mrs. Borland, this is Officer Frankel speaking. We can hear you moving around in there. Open the door. I have a court order I have to serve on you.”

Her heart pounded as the man’s words sank in. Setting Josh on the floor, she opened the door a crack and peered out at the people waiting in the dark hall. None of the lights on the landing worked so she could only make out shadowy forms.

A tall policeman stepped into the light from the door holding up a piece of paper. She glanced at it. “Okay, I see it. What’s this about?”

“This is an order from the Family Court directing us to take custody of your son, Joshua. Open the door and step back.”

“You can go to hell!” she shouted and slammed the door. Before she could turn the lock the door surged back, throwing her against the wall.

She felt time slow. Pinned against the wall by the door, she stared at the policeman as he was striding toward her. His lips were pulled back from his teeth in a feral grin. Behind him stood a beefy policewoman pulling at the nightstick on her belt. Just at the edge of the light from the door stood another person, Susan Smith-Johnson from the Division of Child Protective Services.

The two officers grabbed Helen and slammed her down on the floor, writhing and screaming as they knelt on her back. Ms. Smith-Johnson stepped over her and gathered up Josh. As the woman disappeared into the darkness of the hallway, Joshua shrieked in her arms. Helen only heard some of the things the officer read from the paper.

“By order of the Family Court of the State of Delaware… based on the petition for emergency custody filed by the Division of Child… allegations of willful neglect of the minor child, Joshua, including but not limited to failure to provided essential medical care… gives this Court sufficient reason to believe that the health and safety of this child is at risk. Ex parte emergency custody is hereby awarded to the Division until further hearings can be held.”

The officer laid the paper on the floor and backed away.

*****

Ms. Smith-Johnson sat rigid at her desk with her phone pressed to her ear. “Officer, this is an emergency! A child has been kidnaped and is in terrible danger… No, the kidnaper is his mother, Helen Borland. Joshua is in State custody. His mother had visitation at Woodburn today. They left the grounds several hours ago without the staff realizing it… Yes, we’re sure she’s gone. I sent a social worker to her apartment. It’s empty. Clothing, furniture, everything is gone… No, I don’t think she’ll harm him intentionally. But Joshua has very serious health problems. He just started drug therapy for a mental handicap. Stopping the medication suddenly could be dangerous. Thank you. I’ll fax you a photo of Joshua immediately… Yes, I’ll hold the line.”

*****

Helen clutched the edge of the mahogany table, the defendant’s table in the courtroom. She glanced at the tall woman seated next to her. Her court-appointed attorney had met briefly with her to discuss the case.

“I recommend you consent to the order and avoid a trial. You really don’t understand how serious this is. You have a lot to lose here beyond Josh. Hell, the prosecutor is talking about a felony charge for kidnaping.”

Helen just shook her head. If she opened her mouth she would just start yelling. She couldn’t lose it now. The doctors the State had sent her to had given her pills to help stay calm. Helen smiled, then shook her head. No way I’m going to give him up. He’s my boy.

The bailiff walked past Helen to a door next to the bench. He rapped twice and opened the door a crack. After nodding to someone inside, he stepped forward and shouted, “Hear ye, Hear ye! The Family Court of the State of Delaware in and for Kent County is now in session, this fourteenth day of June 2027. The Honorable Susan B. Attmore is presiding.”

Behind the bailiff, a short, heavy-set black woman strode through the door, mounted the steps to the bench and sat. Judge Attmore examined Helen and her attorney then glanced at the other table where the prosecutor and Ms. Smith-Johnson sat. “Counselor, do you want to tell me what this case is about?”

The prosecutor stood. “Certainly, your honor. We are here on the petition of the Division of Child Protective Services to terminate the parental rights of the defendant, Helen Borland, to the minor child, Joshua Borland. I note that the father of Joshua, Samuel Borland, has signed a waiver and consent, and has filed the appropriate medical certificate. He will not be appearing today.”

The judge nodded and scribbled briefly. “The social report filed with the petition doesn’t mention any plan for Joshua to be adopted. What is the Division’s goal in this case?”

“Adoption is not an option for this child,” the lawyer replied. “Joshua was born with severe multiple handicaps. He is not a good candidate for adoptive placement. The Division’s plan for Joshua is long-term foster care at the State-run facility at Woodburn.”

Turning to stare at Helen, the prosecutor added, “I recognize it’s unusual to seek termination when there’s no plans for an adoption, but the Division feels compelled by the ongoing, willful neglect Josh suffered while in his mother’s care. In fact, we will prove that this abuse predates the child’s birth and caused him to be born with his handicaps. This petition is being filed to prevent any further abuse to this child, not to free him for adoption. For this reason, the Division also is seeking an order from this Court for Mrs. Borland’s involuntary sterilization.”

The judge looked up. “This is a procreation rights case? I didn’t see that in the petition.”

The prosecutor leafed through a file in front of him. “You’ll find that on page seven.”

The judge frowned as she riffled papers in front of her, then nodded. “I have it. Proceed.”

“The Division is prepared to prove that Helen Borland willfully failed to provide proper care for her son, Joshua. This intentional neglect even predates the child’s birth on March 15, 2023. The evidence will show that Mrs. Borland knowingly rejected certain medical tests that would have permitted Joshua, through a guardian ad litem appointed by this Court, to make a decision on his life. When she refused these medical procedures, she deprived her son of his fundamental right to make choices on the nature of his existence.”

The lawyer’s voice became a vague droning in Helen’s ears as her gaze slid down the front of the bench to the rug. God in heaven. They were really going to do it.

*****

“Mrs. Borland? Mrs. Borland!”

Helen glanced up to find the judge staring at her from the bench.

“Mrs. Borland, I would advise you to pay attention.”

Helen nodded, then dropped her gaze down to the floor.

“After the testimony offered by the Division’s witnesses, this Court has no choice but to grant the Division’s petition here. The evidence of willful abuse is overwhelming. You refused all prenatal screening for Joshua, depriving him of his right of self-determination. The Court is especially disturbed by the evidence that you conspired with a Doctor Bloomberg to prevent timely notification to the State. You then refused all assistance from the State through its inpatient facility at Woodburn, while failing to obtain the services yourself. When the State took emergency custody, your son was not receiving treatment for his heart defect and was not in therapy for his mental handicap. Worse, you absconded with Joshua from his treatment facility. You placed Joshua at imminent risk of harm solely for selfish reasons.” Helen looked away and closed her eyes.

The judge paused until Helen looked back. “I will say this once, although I doubt you’ll accept it. Your son has certain basic rights. He is entitled by law to a decent home, adequate care for his needs, and a right of self-determination. You’ve deprived him of those rights even prior to his birth and have sabotaged all the efforts made by the State for Josh. You brought this child into the world under circumstances where you could not take care of him and would not allow the State to do so. There is no excuse for that.”

The judge paused at stared into Helen’s eyes. “Josh is not your property. He’s a free citizen with the same rights as you. And if you won’t care for him, you have no right to his care and custody.

“Your actions convince this Court that you are unfit to parent this child or any other. The Division’s petition as to Joshua will be granted. For the same reason, I will see to it that this never happens again. The Division’s request for an order of involuntary sterilization will be granted as well.”

Helen jerked when she heard someone moving behind her. She turned to find the bailiff and a policewoman standing beside her chair. The policewoman grasped her shoulder.

“I note for the record that Mr. Borland earlier signed a consent to this order and has filed the necessary medical certificate proving his sterilization. No further action against him is ordered.”

Helen felt the screams bubbling up again from deep within. She pushed it down with raw force. She’d gotten good at that. The doctors had given her pills to take care of the panic and fear, but Helen had hid them instead. They’ll put me someplace quiet tonight. I just need a few minutes to swallow all of them and this’ll all be over. She breathed deep to settle herself and relaxed.

“This is so ordered, this 27th day of June, 2027.”

 

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Pink Flamingoes From Hell!

Illustration by Lynn Shipp

by James R. Stratton

 

Phil slouched up 12th Street, buffeted by commuters scurrying home. He sighted the neon sign for Smokey Joe’s Tobacco Bar ahead and grinned. He’d had a bear of a day with the boss on his ass all afternoon. He envisioned himself sliding onto the bar stool at Joe’s and quickened his pace.

At the corner, he strode into the crosswalk, then skipped back when a cab skidded to a halt short of the crosswalk. Phil glared up and growled. Damn it, I got the light! Phil smacked the hood as he walked around, drawing an angry honk from the cab. A bus pulled away before he could cross, belching blue smoke. Phil could feel his pulse pumping up as he swam through acrid exhaust to reach the curb.

Hacking up hydrocarbons, Phil pushed into the tavern’s cool, dark interior. He strolled in as his knotted muscles loosened.

From behind the bar, Joe whispered breathlessly, “Hey, Phil! What’ll it be?”

Joe had lost a lung to cancer in his thirties, but still smoked. And even after the plants were engineered to eliminate carcinogens, do-gooders held firm to banning tobacco except at establishments like Joe’s.

Phil drummed on the bar, smiling. “A beer and a Lucky Strike, my man!”

Joe grunted. “Bad day, huh?” Phil nodded as Joe brought him a beer and an unfiltered cigarette. Phil took that first puff and then a long pull on the beer, and sighed.

Overhead, the TV flashed to a head shot of that pretty blonde newscaster. In the background were clawed and fanged flamingoes with “Special Report” scrolling below. Phil settled in with his beer and butt, content.

“Good evening. I’m Pamela Finnegan, your southern Florida Action Eyewitness News correspondent with a special report on the flamingo crisis; the cause of the disaster, where we are today. We start with their appearance last May.” The camera pulled back to a bald, heavy-set man.

“This is Otis Hatfield, real estate magnate. And tonight you’ll be the first to hear his story.” Otis smiled so his whole face folded into creases, conveying aw-shucks simplicity and home town geniality.

Phil shook his head and blew a smoke ring at the screen. He must’ve practiced that smile in front of a mirror. Anyone with his bucks can’t be that dense. The papers devoted pages to Otis when it all broke, a billionaire who made his fortune in off-shore underwater condos. And afterwards the investigations slid right by him.

Otis clasped his hands across his big gut and nodded. “Thanks, Pam. Hi folks, it’s Otis of Hatfield’s Homes, the best vacation homes in America. Look for my ads in your local news server.” Pamela coughed and Otis flashed her a frown.

“Anyhow, this mess started while I was eatin’ breakfast with my darling wife Peggy Ann. Our home on Chokoloskee Island backs up to the Everglades National Park. We eat on the deck most mornings. Well that day I was watching the flamingoes as they walked along with their heads in the water feedin’. And I realized their knees bent the wrong way! Put me right off my grits! Made me feel all oogie.” Otis shook himself.

“Well, I talked to some friends who asked ’round, and I got a call from a guy at a genetics lab in Kazakhstan. Used to be a weapons plant for the old Soviet Union. We talked about making a bird with proper knees, and at first they acted funny. But when we talked money they got fired up on the idea!”

Pamela leaned forward frowning. “Now you were questioned by the FBI about that purchase. It’s illegal to import genetically modified animals. But you haven’t been charged, right?”

Otis sat back and looked into the camera. “I don’t know much ’bout legal stuff. I ordered flamingo birds for my estate, that’s all. I believed the people I paid would take care of any permits. That’s what my contract said. And I proved all that to the FBI!” He glared his indignation at the camera.

He turned back to Pamela. “Anyways, they showed up with fifty eggs and an incubator. Showed us how to work it, and left us a book on takin’ care of the little fellers. And by god they was cute! Looked like little chicks with long legs, peepin’ and floppin’ round, but with proper knees! Once they was big enough, I turned ’em loose in the swamp.”

“And when did you realize these weren’t ordinary birds?”

“Oh, a couple of months passed with everything fine, but then we noticed them birds was way bigger than wild flamingoes. Didn’t think much of it, they was a special breed after all. But one Sunday my wife was playing with Bitsie, our miniature Shih Tzu dog.”

Otis paused as his eyes teared. “Now ’lil Bitsie was ’bout this big,” and he held up his palm. “She was our little darlin’. Went everywhere in my wife’s purse. Well, Peggy Ann was throwing the ball for Bitsie out back while I read the paper, and the ball rolled into the water. Next thing I know, them birds was all around Bitsie. And then Bitsie started howlin’. I fetched my gun and chased ’em off with a few shots, but there weren’t more’n scraps left of poor Bitsie.” His voice shook and he dabbed his eyes with a hankie. “And that was the last I saw of ’em.”

Pamela patted Otis’ hand. “You have our deepest sympathy on your loss, sir.” Otis smiled and nodded as the camera zoomed in on Pamela.

“In the following months, disturbing reports surfaced across southern Florida of giant birds stalking the swamps in the moonlight. Soon the reality of the nightmare emerged. At our Tampa studio is Dr. August Forward, professor of genetics at Florida Polytechnic Institute.” Pam turned to the bearded man with half-moon glasses smiling from the monitor behind her.

“Dr. August, you’ve conducted a study of the flamingo phenomena. What can you tell our viewers?”

The doctor frowned over his glasses. “Well Pam, paleontologists know that modern birds are the decedents of dinosaurs. Also, we geneticists have known for decades that the genome for modern animals have segments that don’t have a function. For years we considered this junk coding, genes that separated the active segments. More recently, we’ve come to understand these inert segments are valid coding. They are genes from remote ancestors that have been superceded by evolution. They’re still present but aren’t expressed.”

Dr. August sat back. “I believe these mutated birds were a manifestation of that ancestral coding. The changes made by Soviet geneticists did alter the bird’s joint structure, but also activated ancient coding in the genome.”

He held up a drawing of a flamingo. “This was the result. These creatures resemble modern flamingoes with pink feathers and long legs, but with drastic differences.” He used his pen as a pointer. “The beaks are lined with razor-sharp serrations. Their wings end in three clawed fingers, and their feet are armed with long hooked claws. And they stand fifteen feet tall. We’re speculating, but these features resemble theropod dinosaurs of the Ornithomimosaur family that existed during the Cretaceous Period.”

Pam nodded solemnly. “Ornithomimosaurs were meat eaters?”

Dr. August nodded once. “Oh yes. They were aggressive carnivores. Ornithomimosaurs were related to Tyrannosaurus Rex if a bit smaller, hunted in packs, had feathers and saw-toothed beaks.”

Frowning, Pam nodded at the screen. “So these were genetically recreated dinosaurs?”

Dr. August shook his head. “Absolutely not! They were a new species, created accidentally by whomever altered the flamingo genes. A hybrid, with characteristics of both. Long legged and feathered like the flamingo, but carnivorous, pack hunting and aggressive like raptors.”

Pam nodded. “So we are faced with monster carnivores, fast and dangerous?”

“Exactly, Pam.”

“Thank you, Doctor.” The screen behind her faded to black as she faced the camera.

“Through the summer, the crisis continued. And then authorities began receiving missing persons reports. Sightseeing groups would enter the Everglades and not return. Cars were found wrecked and abandoned near the park. In the fall, Governor Johnson declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard. And then on October 18, we had that horrible disaster. With us is Major General Winfred McGowen, Commander of the Florida National Guard.” She turned to a military man seated next to her. “Welcome, sir. Tell us about your encounter with the flamingoes.”

He nodded and turned to the camera. “My Guardsmen were deployed by the Governor on October 2, and we established bivouacs around the Everglades. Scout teams went in, but the Everglades covers hundreds of square miles without roads or navigable channels. And these beasts proved elusive. Several times we received good intelligence on sightings, but only found footprints and feathers when my men arrived.”

He paused and solemnly stared into the camera. “And then on October 18, I got a frantic call from Sheriff Culpepper at Marco Island P.D., ten miles north of the Everglades Park. I scrambled a squad of Guardsmen in Armored Personnel Carriers immediately.”

“The sheriff reported a flock of twenty of these beasts had flown in from the south and landed at Collier Beach. This is a popular vacation spot on the island and was crowded. When we arrived, we found the birds in water, heads down. This is the video my second-in-command took.”

The screen flashed to a grainy video of pink flamingoes striding through the water, heads down as screams resounded. The camera zoomed in revealing people thrashing in the water at the birds feet. The birds churned the water with their beaks, and red foam splashed up as they slashed people. One bird lifted its head with a leg in its beak. The limb disappeared and a bulge coursed down its neck.

“We were stymied at first as these beasts were among the civilians,” General McGowen continued. “But when it was clear the people in the water were in jeopardy, we opened fire with M16s.”

Gunfire boomed and dust puffed from the birds. They squawked and turned, stalking across the beach.

“The gunfire wasn’t effective, but it distracted them from the civilians. Once we had them clear of the water, I ordered up our big weapon. I’d received approval from National Command to deploy our Stinger shoulder-launched missiles.”

A flaring arrow whooshed overhead and struck the lead bird in the breast. A fiery explosion obscured the screen, then pink feathers and red chunks rained down. Several birds thrashed in the sand when the smoke cleared, knocked down by the concussion. Then the birds were running down the beach with wings spread, and soared away.

“We’d put out a call for air support, but these critters were gone by the time the ’copter gun ships reached our location. After that it became a game of hide and seek. They laid low in the swamps, and raided the surrounding communities after dark, like that nighttime little league massacre three weeks later. And we weren’t making progress locating them.”

“Thank you, General,” Pam said as the camera zoomed in. “And so the crisis deepened, with civilian deaths rising. Discussions started on how to evacuate the affected communities. And then Governor Johnson received an offer for help from a most unlikely source. Joining us in the studio of our sister station WBOC in Salisbury, Maryland is Frank Perdue IV, President of Perdue Farms, Incorporated.” She turned to the screen behind her.

“Welcome, Mr. Perdue. Tell our viewers why you came forward.”

The thin, balding man nodded. “Well Pamela, Perdue Farms is the largest poultry producer in the world. We understand birds! Even if these critters were fifteen feet tall, they were still big chickens as far as we was concerned.”

Grim-faced he looked into the camera. “Now at Perdue we’ve used biochemical technology for years to control our flocks on the producer farms. Mama chickens produce a pheromone, a chemical attractant, that draws the chicks to them. We use it to keep flocks together, and lead them when needed. Once we obtained a samples of the flamingo birds, our lab boys identified a similar pheromone. We produced it in quantity and were able to put it to use as a lure.”

The screen flashed to a video taken aloft of a biplane crop duster cruising over endless swampland. White mist trailed from the wings. “The poor critters didn’t stand a chance. We made four runs over the Everglades spraying the flamingo pheromone, and they chased after the planes like mad things.” The camera panned back to a dozen giant flamingoes flapping furiously in pursuit.

“We led ’em north to where the 14th Artillery Battalion from Patrick Air Force Base was waiting.”

The picture switched to a view from the ground as the biplane swept overhead. Behind, squawking and honking, came the flamingoes. The camera panned down to an array of ground-to-air missile platforms. An officer in camo raised his arm as the pink flight of birds approached and shouted, “Fire at will!”

Rockets streaked aloft and flames exploded among the flamingoes. One by one they honked and dropped, raked by the deadly barrage. But still the survivors flapped on, beaks agape, eyes fixed on the retreating crop duster. One by one they flared and fell from the sky, until the last jerked from a rocket blast to the wing. It shrieked and barrel-rolled over, spiraling down trailing flames.

Mr. Perdue reappeared on the screen. “And that was all she wrote. We had all the birds in two weeks, and there’ve been no sightings since.”

Pamela smiled. “And so ended the flamingo crisis. America is grateful, Mr. Perdue. Good night from Eyewitness Action News.”

She paused, then swivelled around. “So Frank, I was wondering what Perdue Farms got out of this. We’ve heard rumors you demanded the two clutches of eggs the Guardsmen found in the Everglades. Was that why they were turned over to your research department?”

Frank smirked. “Come on, girl! My people know poultry! Who else would they want in charge of ’em? No need to be making up stuff about demands.”

“But what does Perdue Farms want with those eggs? They should’ve been destroyed, not hatched!”

“Are you foolin’, girl? Did you see the size of the drumsticks on those critters? You could feed a small town with one!”

Frank stopped talking, staring into the camera. “Hey, that thing’s still on! Turn it off! This is all off the record, hear?”

Phil jumped when the front door banged open as a customer walked in, the roar of traffic rumbling by drowned out the TV. Joe walked over with the remote.

“Hey, sorry but I gotta switch over to the Knicks game. A bunch of people are asking.”

Phil sipped his beer and nodded. “That’s okay, the thing about the big flamingoes is over. But did you hear the bit at the end? Mr. Perdue wanting to raise those things? Weird, huh?”

“Yeah?” Joe jutted his chin at the chalkboard by the register. “Check out the specials,” and picked up Phil’s ashtray.

“Happy Hour Special!” it proclaimed in pink chalk. “Flamingo tenders! With hot sauce or ranch dressing!”

“Is that for real? Monster flamingo meat?”

Joe shrugged. “It’s just in from my supplier. And they’re really good! Taste just like chicken, but sweeter!”

“Really? Well, give me an order. And hit me again.” Joe slid a beer and a butt to him smiling.

And they did taste just like chicken.

 

Con Review: RavenCon 2010

ravencon2010by James R. Stratton

 

RavenCon 2010
April 9–11, 2010
Richmond, Virginia
http://www.ravencon.com/

RavenCon in Richmond is a new, up-and-coming SF&F convention that was first held in 2006. At that time they had a paid attendance of several hundred, but because of the excellent organization, and the personal touch the con can offer its members, RavenCon has prospered. I’ve attended RavenCon for the last three years, and have been a guest panelist for the last two. My experience probably typifies the general experience of the membership.

This year RavenCon was held in the Holiday Inn Koger Center in Richmond, a larger venue that was necessary because of the con’s growth. The con had multiple tracks running throughout the weekend, including programming tracks for filk, gaming, science, art, writer’s workshops and, of course, literature. The hotel itself is clean and well run, with a spacious convention area. My only complaint would be the restaurant service, which apparently was not told of the convention by the front desk, and was absolutely overwhelmed by the crowd. However, this is typical for many con hotels, especially when they are new to such events.

I arrived mid-day on Friday and checked in with a minimum of fuss. The hotel is located along a major commercial highway, with a number of malls and shops within minutes. I was able to get a haircut and pick up a few odds and ends I forgot in roughly an hour. At 5:00, I joined Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Bernie Mojzes for the launch party hosted by Dragon Moon Press for the new anthology Rum & Runestones we were all in, along with a number of the other authors. Several other books were featured as well, and the event was well attended as there was plenty of food and drink available. I understand sales of the new releases were brisk, so all were pleased with the results. I met up with some friends at the room parties afterwards, and had a late night.

Saturday was a busy day for me with five panels scheduled. At 9:00 I was part of a panel on the pros and cons of wanting to write and publish novels. This was an odd experience for me as the other panelists were the Guest of Honor Rachel Caine and established author Nancy Halger. So we had me (who is working on the publication of my first novel), Nancy (who has several out) and Rachel (who has 30+ novels published and 10 more under contract). It was quite a contrast. At 1:00 I was on a panel on whether you need an agent (opinions were mixed), at 2:00 “Don’t Give Up Your Day Job” (good advice for any new author), at 3:00 “How Not To Get Sued” (with myself and other lawyer/authors on the panel), and finally “Why Contribute To An Anthology” with major author/editors like Bud Sparhawk, Lee Martindale and Chuck Gannon. I did another round of room parties to top off the night.

Sunday was my slower easier day. I joined the AM koffee klatch with Valerie Griswold-Ford, the editor of Rum & Runestones for Dragon Moon, along with many of my fellow authors, for a chat with any and all who joined us. I sat in on some panels, and chatted with folks I hadn’t had a chance to catch up with earlier in the weekend, then headed home.

Probably the most important part of the weekend are the bits that would seem fleeting to most folks. I met an agent who now knows me by first name, I got invited to submit to a themed anthology I otherwise wouldn’t have known about, and I was asked to collaborate on a short story with an author friend who was stuck midway through a fantasy tale. None of this would have happened otherwise. Given the small and friendly atmosphere of RavenCon, this is what I have come to expect. It certainly is not something that would happen at any of the larger cons with thousands in attendance.

So if any of this interests you, please plan on attending next year, same weekend, same venue. You won’t regret your decision.

 

In the Slammer!

Layout 1

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Melanie sat rigid on the iron bench, panting as her gaze darted around the jail cell. She wore her best navy blue outfit, flattering but demure, the sort of thing you wear to visit your boyfriend’s parents or your grandmom, or to appear for trial in criminal court. Across from her, the security field sealing the entrance shimmered with a soft red glow, red for danger, red for no-go. Melanie had learned not to mess with the security field while still in high school.

But I’m not supposed to be in lockup. Sid guaranteed I’d get probation if I took the damn plea. Where the hell is he? She could hear her heart thumping as she panted. At least they didn’t put me in a cell with some pervert dyke. And then she shivered. At least, not yet.

The security field buzzed and shifted to a shade of sky blue. Melanie didn’t move, blue just meant the security field had polarized so someone could walk through from outside. A balding guy wearing a rumpled suit and carrying a battered briefcase strode down the hall and stepped through the opening without pausing. He was sweating and looked harried as the field flashed to red behind him.

“Okay Sydney, what’s going on? Why am I in lockup?” Melanie felt her heartbeat ramp up worse when Sydney sighed and didn’t look her in the eye. “Shit, Sydney, did you screw up?” His jaw clenched and he glared.

“No, Mel, I didn’t screw up. The deal was going just like we discussed, up until this morning. You’ve pled guilty to three felony counts out of ten bad check charges. The rest will be nolle prossed. And the prosecutor is locked into not making any recommendation on the sentence. This should’ve been a walk in the park. We go see Judge Jones, he gives you probation and you walk out. I got no idea why they grabbed you. An order came down this morning for you to be held until sentencing.” He paused and glared again. “In fact, I should be asking if you screwed up. You got some new charge I don’t know about? Not smart Mel, it’s guaranteed to piss off the judge.”

Melanie glared back and balled her fists. “No, goddamn it! You think I’m an idiot?”

She and her attorney argued back and forth until Melanie clenched her teeth and looked away. Well, somebody screwed up and it’s my tail in the ringer. Jesus!

The security field buzzed again and a tall man in a starched white shirt and pressed black suit stepped through the entrance gingerly, wincing with bald fear of it.

He straightened his tie, glanced from her to Sid, and grinned the kind of smile Melanie would expect a veterinarian to give a mutt just before he neutered it. “Sydney, my man! I wanted to be the first to tell you how thoroughly the shit has hit the fan. I take it you haven’t heard about Judge Jones?”

Her attorney plopped on the bench next to Melanie and ran his hand through his sparse hair. “Quit jerking us around, Jim. Spill it! We’re scheduled before Judge Jones in half an hour on Ms. McCarthy’s sentencing. Has it been continued?”

The prosecutor just flashed another smile that sent chills down Melanie’s spine. “No, no! We’re on for 10:30. But we’ll be before Judge Harkins, not Jones. Judge Jones’ father went into the hospital yesterday. He made arrangements for Judge Harkins to handle the calendar. So your little client here goes before Ironman Harkins instead. I gotta give the guy credit. Harkins was in his office before dawn reviewing files, and had detainers issued on a bunch of the cases.” The prosecutor paused to glance over to Melanie. “I don’t think he likes you, sweetheart. If he’s got you in lockup now, I can just guess what’s coming when we go upstairs.”

“Jesus, Jim! That isn’t fair!” Sydney jumped up and stood toe to toe with the prosecutor. “And we agreed, no jail. She’s only had a couple of juvenile convictions and a misdemeanor conviction last year. You need to tell Judge Harkins the deal was probation, not jail.”

Melanie shivered as the prosecutor’s smile just widened. He shook his head once, back then forth. “The deal was I would make no recommendation, and I won’t. And what the good judge does after that is entirely up to his honorable conscience. It’s the luck of the draw, Sid, you know that. But your client is a good-looking young lady, she has options.”

“Shut up!” He poked the prosecutor in the chest. “And get out! I haven’t discussed that with her, I didn’t think it was necessary. Now go, you’ve given us your news.”

The prosecutor chuckled and waved his electronic passcard in front of the security field. It flashed to green and he stepped through.

Sydney rubbed his forehead, then sat on the bench and patted her on the knee. “Okay, things aren’t happening the way we thought. Not my fault, not your fault, but that’s the way it is. You need to make some decisions before we go upstairs.”

“Can’t we just withdraw the plea?” Melanie fought tears and bit her lip. “I mean, this wasn’t the deal.”

“I can make the request, but I expect Judge Harkins will deny it. You’ve already entered the plea in open court, admitted guilt and agreed to all the terms. Nobody guaranteed you would get Judge Jones for the sentencing. And that’s not a basis to withdraw a plea. Now listen up, I need to explain some things.”

Melanie took a deep, shuddering breath and nodded. “Okay, how deep is the shit I’m in?”

“Pretty deep.” He grimaced, took a deep breath. “You got three options. First is jail.”

“Okay, I was in detention as a juvenile. I can do that.”

Sydney just shook his head. “Juvenile detention isn’t adult jail. The State has an obligation to rehabilitate juveniles. That means the State pays. But the Governor and the Legislature changed all that three elections back for adults. You remember the campaign, ‘Criminals should be responsible for their punishment.’ Jail costs the good citizens of this State over fifty grand a year per inmate. Nowadays, detainees are expected to reimburse the State, at least for a fat percentage. Anyone in your family got money?”

“Hell no! You think I’d be buying my date-night outfits with rubber checks if I did?”

Sydney grunted and continued. “Second option, public service in a needy community. I know you don’t have a college degree, but have you got any kind of job skills I can sell to the judge? The ghetto communities always need medical technicians, teachers, and drug counselors. Understand, if I sell this you’ll be signing away your life for the next five years. You got anything I can cobble into some sort of specialized skill?”

Melanie stared at the floor and shook her head. She dropped out of school in 11th grade. Never worked at anything but minimum wage jobs since.

Sydney grunted. “Too bad. Last option, what some call the meat option. You sign away your rights and agree to take part in an unskilled public service project.”

Melanie felt tears burning her eyes as she glanced up.

Her attorney continued. “You volunteer for medical experimentation. The government always needs subjects for testing new drugs and medical appliances. Ever since the passage of that animal rights act, testing on dumb animals isn’t allowed.”

“Yeah, but I’ve seen what can happen.” Melanie stood and paced the cell. “A guy on my street can’t hardly walk or talk after they tested a new drug on him. Nerve damage, they told him.”

Sydney just shrugged. “Of course there are risks, that’s why they need volunteers.”

He looked away and fidgeted with the handle of the briefcase. “And they’re always looking for licensed comfort liaisons for the military. The Soldiers and Sailors Relief Act of 2050 guarantees members of the military will have appropriate companions available when they’re off-duty. Most of the liaisons are licensed prostitutes hired out of Las Vegas and New York City.”

Melanie shivered. Dead meat or fresh meat was the way it’s described on the street.

“What if I just refuse, tell the judge to go to hell?”

Sydney chuckled. “I wouldn’t recommend it. The law is clear, the State can’t be burdened with the cost of your punishment. The good citizens voted that referendum in back when you were still in high school. The old prison system cost millions of dollars, produced nothing and rehabilitated nobody. People came out more dangerous and crazy than when they went in. Let the criminals pay for their own punishment the politicians used to say. Make them give something back. Anyway, you refuse to cooperate and the Ironman Harkins gets to pick.”

“Jesus, Sydney!” Melanie closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. “How the hell can I choose? This ain’t fair.”

“Neither is stealing from the merchants of our fair city, and you ripped them off for a bundle. But don’t sell the comfort liaison gig short. It’s Federal, which means good food, good housing, good medical, and decent working conditions. You work at the clubs on military bases.”

He glanced at his watch. “Think it over. We’ve got ten minutes.” The security field flashed blue and a burly guard stepped into the cell. Sydney stood and stepped aside as Melanie was cuffed and patted down. He waved his passcard at the security field and it flashed green. “See you upstairs.” He walked out.

 

Con Review: Balticon 39

Balticon39by James R. Stratton

 

Balticon 39
May 27-30, 2005
Baltimore, Maryland

Once again, me and mine attended the annual science-fiction convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society over Memorial Day weekend. The Writer Guests of Honor were Stephen Barnes and his spouse, Tananarive Due, the Artist Guest of Honor was Bob Eggleton and the Filk Guest of Honor was Jordan Kare. This was the fifth year that Balticon has been held over Memorial Day weekend with an expanded, four-day schedule, and I can truly say they have handled the transition beautifully after some initial growing pains.

My son and I arrived at the Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel midafternoon on Friday. Check-in was quick and painless. My son, a gamer, spent the bulk of the weekend running between the computer room (participating in networked online tournaments), the gaming room and the anime room. My interests on the other hand are focused on writing. I started off with a panel on fanzines moderated by Nth Degree’s own Michael Pederson with great visual aids and stories supplied by Steve Stiles, followed by a panel on “Creating Realistic Species,” and finished off the evening with a panel on “Humor In Science Fiction” moderated by Bud Sparhawk. I also managed to watch a few episodes of anime and visited the Dealer’s Room and Art Show. The topper for the night was a presentation by local TV personality Count Gore De Vol, dressed in full vampire regalia. The Count was in good form as he introduced a number of independent films.

Saturday started off early for me with the Writer’s Workshop at 9:00. This workshop, moderated by writer Steve Lubs, is a teaching workshop and this year he focused on creating believable characters. With a room full of aspiring writers, we had lively discussions on how to create compelling characters for our stories. The art show was in especially good form with a whole section devoted to Bob Eggleton’s work as well as dozens of other artists. My favorites were Moifa’s Chinese-style brushwork, and Mark Rogers’ fantasy artwork. I first saw Moifa’s work at Philcon several years ago and have watched as her sparse watercolors have gone from being a steal to the point where I can no longer afford them. The rest of the day was spent in various panels, including one on “Breaking Writer’s Block.” This panel was especially comforting as it helped me to appreciate that writer’s block among authors is as common as Klingons at a Trek convention. I just wish they had some magic bullet for curing it.

After dinner, my son and I attended the Masquerade. As usual, the competition was hosted by Marty Gear in his vampire persona, with roughly twenty entrants. My favorite was a humorous presentation ably assisted by Marty. He reminisced fondly about visits from the tooth fairy when he was a child. She removed the tooth painlessly and paid you lots of money. The lights then came up and out on the stage walked another fairy, wearing a white fright wig and carrying a three-foot hypodermic. Marty advised us that now that we’re adults, we will receive visits from this person, the root canal fairy. She will cause you great pain as she extracts teeth, and will leave only after you have paid her lots and lots of money. It was a scream! As lighthearted as this presentation was, it still managed to take two of the top prizes of the night.

After the last presentation, my son headed back to the gaming room and I headed to the room parties. Sadly, this year the number of parties was quite low. Nth Degree had the most popular party of the night, dispensing its own special brew of “tea” in the much-sought-after glow-in-the-dark cup. But aside from a party hosted by the Philcon con committee and another hosted by the Chicago in 2008 bid committee, that was it (at least that I could find). Understand, this is quite unusual for Balticon, as there are usually a dozen or more parties to choose from all weekend.

Sunday started for me at 10:00 with a panel on “Writing as a Second Career,” with a number of authors—including novelist Robert Chase—participating. This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me. As I am an attorney like Bob Chase, as well as a fledgling writer, I asked how he dealt with the ticklish ethical question on how to keep your legal career separate from your writing career. Attorneys have strict ethical requirements as members of the legal bar not to mix their legal careers with any other public endeavors. Our discussion continued after the panel was done, and he took me to the Green Room to continue our chat. We were joined shortly by Analog Mafia member and noted Heinlein historian Eric Kotani (Yoji Kondo) and by David Silver, also an attorney and the President of the Heinlein Society. Our talk covered a number of topics and lasted for the rest of the morning. Wonderful! Contact with important writers in the field is what I come to cons for.

Sunday was another busy day attending panels, watching videos, bidding at the art auction, participating in the voice auction that followed and then collecting my prizes. The day was capped off with the Second Annual Balticon Film Festival. Although still a new feature of the con, they received more films than they could schedule on Sunday. I understand that many of the films that Count Gore De Vol presented on Friday actually were submitted for the film festival, but could not be presented because of time constraints. As you would expect, they ranged from truly awful to quite good.

Monday was the final day of the con, but was still very active with panels, video presentations and of course the Dealer’s Room. I had visited several times throughout the con but was surprised to see the room still packed with dealers eager to do business. One dealer later explained: At most cons, you do little business on the last day so many dealers pack up and leave as soon as they can. For some reason, most of the dealers were doing better business Monday at Balticon than they had the rest of the weekend, and nobody was leaving.
After making my round of good byes, I packed my car and headed out. Next year will be yet another transition for Balticon. After over a decade located in Center City Baltimore, the con committee decided to relocate to the Hunt Valley Marriott outside the city. From its web page, it looks to be a beautiful facility, so I guess change is good. See you next year!

 

Con Review: Philcon 2004

Philcon2004by James R. Stratton

 

Philcon 2004
December 10-12, 2004
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
http://www.philcon.org/2004/

Until recently, Philcon’s attendance ranged from 1,000 to 2,000 paid attendees. A few years ago Philcon moved its location and date, and seems to be suffering from being too close to Christmas. Last year attendance dropped to just over 1,000 paid memberships. It is my understanding that this year attendance dropped again, to between 700 and 800 paid memberships. It is my hope that the con committee has taken note and will be taking steps to remedy this.

Despite the drop in numbers, those in attendance still had a wonderful time. This year, the Artist Guest of Honor was Joe Devito. The scheduled Writer GoH, Brian Aldiss, was unable to attend due to health problems, but the con was able to book Pamela Sargent and George Zebrowski in his place. As every year, the merry Nth Degree Crew was in attendance as well, running a table in the Dealer’s Room and dispensing the much-sought-after glow-in-the-dark drink cup at their room party.

The venue—the Marriott Center City Hotel—is worthy of mention. Philcon obtained this venue when they hosted the World Science Fiction Convention in 2001. It is a four-star hotel in the heart of Philadelphia and is a beautiful facility. My family had reserved two rooms, but found when we arrived that the hotel had mistakenly given away one of our rooms. They promptly upgraded our reservations to two adjoining suites at the Marriott Concierge Deluxe Hotel next door, at no extra charge. The staff at this hotel is nothing if not professional and discrete. With no fuss, we spent the weekend in rooms that were easily double the size of the standard room at the con hotel.

As in previous years, Philcon had enough activities to satisfy just about anyone. There was an Art Show with auction, along with a full weekend of panels discussing various aspects of artistic endeavors; a Dealer’s Room with dozens of merchants; a Masquerade competition; a gaming room with competitions running around-the-clock; an anime room with showings running from late Friday until late Sunday; a movie room with a similar schedule; Filk performances; readings by various authors; and of course, seven or eight panel discussions running simultaneously on such topics as graphic novels, sex toys of the future, the business of writing, space exploration and Internet fraud. In addition, the con committee added a new activity, a networked computer gaming room separate from the main gaming room, running such popular games as Unreal Tournament and 1942. And, of course, they had the Philcon Writers Workshop, my favorite activity each year.

This year Philcon was different for me. In the past, my family and I scattered once we arrived. My son and I would help with the Art Show set-up (and earn our badges for the next year), while my wife and daughter took advantage of the wonderful shopping to be found in Center City. My son would then focus his time on gaming and anime, my daughter on anime and shopping, my wife on shopping and jewelry design, and me on various panels on writing with some videos thrown in when I could find time. But the past year has seen changes and growth in my writing career, and Philcon marked the release of a collection of my short stories published by Big Blind Productions. This was a happy occasion, allowing me the unique experience of spending most of my weekend autographing my chapbook for purchasers. Is this really how authors spend their time at cons?

The rest of my time on Saturday was spent at the Writers Workshops, where my story and nine others received the close, critical attentions of editors George Scithers and Darryl Schweitzer, and professional writers Carl Frederick, P.D. Cacek and Roman Ranieri. I’m happy to report that my story received mostly positive comments. Still, I had the chilly experience of watching as Hugo and Nebula award-winning editor George Scithers, in his kindest and most sincere tones, advised several authors, “This is a bad story! Don’t do it again. Now that it’s out of your system, go write something better.”

Sadly, I had to pass on my annual visit to the Masquerade, but I understand it was well attended with thirteen entrants displaying their works.

The weekend ended with the Art Show auction, where we won a half-dozen items ranging from a limited-edition print to fantasy-themed Christmas balls for our tree. When we were ready to go, the hotel staff literally whisked our bags from our rooms to our car with a minimum of fuss, and we were on the road home, tired but well pleased with our weekend. We already have our memberships for next year, and I can heartily recommend that you consider doing the same.

 

Con Review: Balticon 38

Balticon38by James R. Stratton

 

Balticon 38
May 28-31, 2004
Baltimore, Maryland
http://www.balticon.org/

Balticon is the annual convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS), and this last Memorial Day weekend marked its 38th year. Balticon is considered a large regional convention with attendance in the range of 1500 to 2000 members each year. The Writer Guest of Honor this year was Lois McMaster Bujold, the Artist GoH was David Seeley and the Musician GoH was Heather Alexander. This year’s convention marked a turning point for the con organizers. Until a few years ago, Balticon was a three-day con held over Easter weekend. In 2001, BSFS opted to move the convention to Memorial Day weekend and added a fourth day of programming on the Monday holiday. After suffering some growing pains, I’m happy to report that BSFS has made the transition to the expanded schedule successfully.

My son and I arrived at the Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel midafternoon on Friday. Check-in was quick and painless. My son, a gamer, was off to the computer room as soon as we were settled, and he split his time between the computer room and the main game room, with the odd side trip into the anime room. Over the weekend he participated in competitions on the networked computers for Unreal Tournament and 1942, and tournaments in the game room for Mage Knights and Hero Clix. My interests are focused on writing, often leading to several schedule conflicts. I started off with a panel on research and writing, with Ms. Bujold, Josepha Sherman and Bud Sparhawk offering some lively discussion. At 6:00 I joined your own merry Nth Degree crew at a meet and greet panel, at the same time passing on panels on what to do once you’ve completed your first novel and a reading by Scott Edelman. This was common for me throughout the weekend, and I won’t dwell on it here. At 7:00 I caught part of a panel on mythology in genre fiction and then headed to the video room for a special showing of the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Saturday is the main day for the convention traditionally, and it started off early for me with the Writer’s Workshop at 9:00. This workshop, moderated by writer Steve Lubs, is not your typical read and critique workshop. Steve runs this as a teaching workshop, and this year he focused on humor in genre fiction. Sadly, this was less well attended than in previous years with only myself and two other attendees joining Steve. Still, we had three hours of discussion and exercises that I look forward to each year. I met a friend from the Baltimore area for lunch and we made the rounds of the Dealer’s Room and Art Show afterwards. The Art Show was in especially good form with a whole section devoted to David Seeley’s work as well as dozens of other artists. My favorite is Moifa, whose Chinese-style brushwork is always impressive. I first saw her work at Philcon several years ago, and have watched as her sparse water colors have become much sought after. The rest of the day was spent catching panels like Dueling Easels (two artists compete to create a painting based on a selected writer’s work), watching anime and shopping in the Dealer’s Room.

After dinner my son and I got in line for the Masquerade. Balticon is considered one of the prime regional costume competitions. As usual, it was hosted by Marty Gear with roughly twenty entrants. My favorite was actually a practical joke on Marty, who presides over these competitions in the guise of a vampire. When he announced competitor No. 8, the tech crew cut in over the PA.

“Marty, where does a vampire stay when he visits New York City?”

“I don’t know,” Marty replied.

“Why at the Vampire State Building of course!” they said and out walked a gentleman dressed in a ten foot high model of the Empire State Building with large bloody fangs. I was amazed to see Marty manage to blush through white pancake makeup.

The Masquerade is also the time for the Reading Is Fundamental charity auction, an annual event for BSFS. The auction allows BSFS to buy books for middle school children at area schools. Many of these children have never owned a book, but BSFS is able to give away two or three per student with the proceeds of this auction. This year was extremely successful. In addition to the normal array of autographed books and other genre-related items, BSFS received a limited-edition Hirschfeld lithograph of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew donated by Brent Spiner. Bidding was lively and it sold for over $1000.

My son headed back to the gaming rooms and I headed to the room parties. These rooms parties are put on by various groups like the Japanese bid committee for the 2007 Worldcon, and are always wonderful opportunities to meet your fellow fans. I’m happy to report that the Nth Degree room party was the most popular this year, offering various concoctions in glow-in-the-dark cups that were a huge hit. This party was especially fun for me. I have met most of this merry crew at other cons, but was able to spend time with their illustrator, J. Andrew World, for the first time. If you’ve admired the artwork of the magazine, you’ve admired his work. I stayed late. The drinks were enlightening, the company congenial, and a good time was had by all.

In past years, Sunday was when the con would lose steam. Things would wrap up by midafternoon, with the art show closing at 1:00 and the dealers closing shop by 2:00 or 3:00. This year, BSFS made a special effort to extend the programming and other attractions, with great success.

My day started at 10:00 with a Kaffeeklatsch with author Bud Sparhawk followed by another at 11:00 with Keith DeCandido. I grabbed a quick bite and headed to the art show to put in my bids on some jewelry (for my wife and daughter), and one small Chinese watercolor by Moifa that I had to have. I won all my bids and picked up these items after 2:00, then headed over to the voice auction to watch the bidding on the more hotly contested items. I even bid on a few myself and picked up some small items at very reasonable prices.

After an excellent dinner at the Harbor Lights restaurant at the Baltimore Inner Harbor, my son and I attended the First Annual Balticon Sunday Night Film Festival, featuring eight short films by amateur producers. The competition was judged by the audience, and played to a packed house. As you might expect, the films ranged from truly awful to surprisingly good. My favorite was a film on how George Lucas made a deal with the Devil for the success of his Star Wars movies (Fall of a Saga) which won first place. The festival concluded with a special showing of The Return Of The King. I saw this in the theater, but that was nowhere near as enjoyable as watching the movie in a room full of active and vocal fans who were enjoying every nuance as much as I was.

Monday was the final day of the con, and I started it off with a panel on the differences between authors and editors in judging the quality of fiction, moderated by Nth Degree’s own Mike Pederson. The discussion was lively, even if we did have trouble getting into the room initially. My son and I made one more sweep of the Dealer’s Room, and were shocked to see most of the dealers still present and happy to dicker over prices on this last day. We then hit the Art Room for a special showing of genre related artwork on display from a local collector.

As you can see, there was hardly a slow moment for me throughout the entire weekend. I credit this to BSFS working hard to ensure the added day of the convention was worth while. Understand, the above description glosses over several completely separate tracks of activities that were running throughout the weekend, like Regency dancing, art-related panels, panels for costumers, filk music concerts and a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) competition. In addition, BSFS provided a separate track of children’s programming for the young fans. Needless to say, there was more going on here than any half-dozen people could have followed. I left with regret, and look forward to returning next year. See you there!

 

Con Review: Philcon 2003

Philcon2003by James R. Stratton

 

Philcon 2003
December 12-14, 2003
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philcon is Philadelphia’s large regional convention, with attendance between 1,000 and 2,000 fans each year (closer to 1,000 this year). The con offers a huge array of activities to satisfy any taste. This year the Writer Guest of Honor was Jack McDevitt, the Artist Guests of Honor were the Brothers Hildebrandt (although only one of the brothers was able to attend), and the Special Guests were Peter David and Harry Harrison. Of course, many, many other artists, authors, editors, costumers, and other genre luminaries were in attendance as well. A grossly incomplete list would include Dr. Paul Levinson, P.D. Cacek, Michael Swanwick, Diane Weinstein, Mark Rogers, Darrell Schweitzer, George Scithers, John Gregory Betancourt, Tony Ruggiero, Laura Anne Gilman, Scott Edelman, Gordon Van Gelder, Gardner Dozois, Jon Norman, and David Hartwell. Of course, the merry Nth Degree crew was there as well, with Issue #8 in hand, literally hot off the presses.

As with past Philcon’s, my wife and children joined me, along with a friend and her three children this year. For me, this was a con characterized by many highs and lows. We arrived at the convention hotel early Friday morning so that the five children and myself could volunteer for the Art Show set up. I highly recommend this; volunteers make conventions happen and for the few hours you put in setting up, helping out, or tearing things down afterwards, you get your membership for the next year waived. You also get to meet the wonderful people that work so hard all year to put on the show. While we were laboring away in the showroom, my darling wife and her friend went shopping. The Marriott Center City is one block from Lord and Taylor, the Reading Terminal Market, and a multistory shopping mall. Given the proximity of this con to Christmas, these stores were very handy.

The con officially opened for business at 7:00 PM, with such panels as “Breaking the Belljar: Peter Max Draws Harlan Ellison” on genre art and “Transformation of the Graphic Novel.” I especially liked the panel entitled “I Want to Write That When I Grow Up” followed by “Contract and Literary Law.” I also found time to visit the Art Show and the Dealer’s Room. This year’s art show was in excellent form, with dozens of artists attending.

Throughout the evening my children and their friends split their time between the gaming room and the anime room. My son even entered a Mage Knight tournament and took first place. He literally walked away with his arms loaded down with prizes from the game designers. Later, my wife and I stopped off at the lounge in the atrium of the hotel for martinis before we called it a night.

Saturday is the main day for the convention, with activities running from early in the morning until the wee hours of the night. I’ll just mention a smattering of the things we did. I started the day with a panel entitled, “Can This Writer Be Saved?” and a discussion of time travel by the noted author and physicist John Ashmead at 10:00 AM. At 11:00, I ran into my first serious conflict. Scheduled at the same time were: “The Editors’ Panel” with Gordon Van Gelder, David Hartwell, Andrew Wheeler, and Gardner Dozois; a panel on recommended jobs for writers hosted by Scott Edelman; a panel on the use of pen names; and a panel on writing from the point of view of a sociopath. For a writer like myself, each of these panels was a must-attend, so I felt terribly torn.

At noon I grabbed a quick bite and then presented myself at the Writer’s Workshop, the highlight of the convention for me. For novice writers, this is definitely something you should do. This year the convention had arranged for Darrell Schweitzer, P.D. Cacek, Roman Ranieri, Diane Weinstein, and George Scithers to review and critique any and all manuscripts submitted. Nowhere else have I ever been able to get such a concentrated dose of professional feedback on my writing, and as painful as it sometimes is I can’t pass it up. Sadly, this was the first low point in the convention for me. The workshop was not well advertised this year. Only my story and one other were received, compared to 6-10 manuscripts in previous years. Did you ever wonder how a scrap of meat thrown among a pack of hungry wolves felt? It was a good news/bad news kind of experience. The other story was an effort by a novice writer about a knight in shining armor rescuing a beautiful princess from an evil ogre. They tore the tale to bloody bits. Having already satisfied their bloodlust, they then spent close to an hour with me and I’m happy to say that they were largely positive. They had some specific recommendations, but overall liked it. I floated out of the room.

I spent the rest of the day watching anime, making a few purchases in the Dealer’s Room, and watching my son take third place in another Mage Knight tournament. For dinner, our friend took the kids to the Mall for pizza while Patty and I went across the street for an excellent Italian dinner. Back at the hotel, we got the kids settled in the gaming room and headed over to the main ballroom for the Masquerade. While CostumeCon and Worldcon are the premier events for costumers, Philcon has traditionally been an important regional competition. Sadly, this year was not up to past standards. I understand the convention committee ran into problems obtaining a venue for the competition and had a great deal of difficulty setting up. Although scheduled to start at 8:00, the doors did not open until 8:30, and the show did not start until almost 9:00 due to technical difficulties. The presentations were truly wonderful but we were disappointed to learn that there were only nine competitors this year, as compared to the usual twenty or so in previous years. Still, we did get one pleasant surprise. A young man on the convention staff contrived an elaborate ruse to get called on stage and then had his girlfriend brought up as well. On one knee he proposed and she accepted. The popular rumor afterwards was that their ceremony will be the highlight of next year’s Masquerade.
We exited before the awards were handed out and scattered. I headed to the video and anime rooms, the kids returned to the gaming room for yet another tournament, and my wife and her friend visited the lounge before calling it a night. The rest of us followed shortly after midnight. We had enjoyed the day and were well tired out. Unfortunately, we hit our third low point of the convention shortly after we turned in.

At 5:00 AM the fire alarm sounded. The security staff assured us that there was no emergency and they were checking out the alarm. Still all of us and many others dressed and headed down to the lobby to await the outcome. It turned out to be a false alarm and we were back in our rooms by 6:00. The rumors the next day were that someone had triggered the fire alarm intentionally, but I never did hear a final resolution. (Someone not involved with the con had accidentally started a trashcan fire—ed.) Still I am disturbed by the whole scenario, as this is how Disclave in Washington, D.C. ended.

Needless to say, we all slept in late the next day, and then headed to the Art Show to place our bids for the items we’d selected over the weekend, then moved over to the Dealer’s Room for some last-minute purchases. I caught a panel on suspended animation before we all returned to the Art Show to pick up the items we had won in the bidding. Normally, we would have stayed for a few more hours, but the weather reports were calling for rain/snow/sleet, so we (and many others) loaded up the car and headed home.

Overall, I enjoyed Philcon very much, as did my family. It is true that there were some glitches as noted, but the high points far outweighed the low points. We already have our memberships for next year and I would recommend you do the same. See you December 10-12, 2004! www.philcon.org

 

Meat Bag

Meat Bag

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by James R. Stratton

 

Noise! Raucous, giddy, clamoring noise pulled BoyTen’s mind six ways. He couldn’t think, couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, it was so overwhelming. He stumbled along buffeted by the crowd as his bare feet slapped the wet pavement. His head barely reached the waists of all these big people, so his view was blocked by the fleshy forest. A trail of angry shouts marked his passage. Seeking asylum, BoyTen’s gaze darted about but only found more people, more bewildering sights. The big people loomed over him, generally acting like he wasn’t there. An opening, dark and unpeopled, appeared between a man dressed in bright holiday colors and a gleaming silver cart pushed by a sad, withered woman. The boy leapt, startling the woman, and scrambled into the dark and quiet. Sighing, he crawled between two dumpsters smearing smelly filth on his oversized green coveralls. He hugged his knees to his chest and pulled his knit cap over the blue marks on his forehead.

“I’m a good boy, a very good boy,” he murmured. “But I done a bad thing.” He rocked as his gaze darted about. “KeeperJohn, I’m sorry. I wanna go home. Come find me.”

But how could that happen? He’d gotten so turned around that he had lost track of his turns and twists. How would KeeperJohn, or even ChiefKeeperSimon, unravel the trail if he could not? He’d treaded the path with his own feet!

As his breath slowed and his heart quieted, BoyTen worried at the puzzle. Try to remember the path back? He grunted and grimaced as he tried to remember. But the chaos of his passage defeated him. Follow his own tracks? No, there was no dirt to hold his tracks. He clutched his knees as his eyes burned with tears. There had to be a way!

He sat up and sniffed. Yes! He clasped his hands and sniffed again. The air was rich with exotic scents he’d never smelled. But laced in and through them was his own familiar musk. Normally he ignored it, but not today!

BoyTen stood and padded down the dark alley. If he could follow his own scent-trail back the way he’d come, he could find his way. Hot tears blurred his vision as a sob burst up from his belly. He needed to be home so bad! He missed his pen, the compound with its climbing structures, his fellow boys and girls. Oh, this crowded, dirty, noisy place was terrible!

BoyTen pinched himself. Not now! He needed to be calm if he had any hope. Breathing as he’d been taught, BoyTen stilled his mind and heart. He exhaled and wiped his nose on his sleeve. Sniffing, he smiled. Yes, it was there.

At the entrance, BoyTen stared wide-eyed at the swirling crowd. His trail turned to the right, back the way he’d come. He hugged his sides and took a cleansing breath, then slipped in between two men striding along and marched within the human canyon they formed. Good, a left here and straight ahead.

He walked a good long way, turning left and right, and only lost the scent once. With his eyes half-closed he ignored everything, threading his way through the sea of smells. The further he came, the fainter his scent grew. It was spreading and drowning in the sea of smells. Suddenly a hand grasped his shoulder, jerking him around.

“Got you, ya little bastard!” said a man with a face the color of a looming thunderstorm. “You knock over my table, you break my goods, you pay!”

BoyTen squirmed and pulled, but the man held tight. He twisted his one hand around to gather the loose cloth of BoyTen’s coveralls and punched BoyTen in the head so his knees buckled.

“Stop it! Hold still!” the man shouted. “You wait for the police.” He smacked BoyTen again so he saw sparkling lights before him. A cold breath on his scalp warned him he’d lost his cap. Before he could grab it, the man hoisted BoyTen up and thumped him on the side of the head so that everything blanked out. He returned to gasps and shouts as he spun helpless in the man’s hand.

“Look! He has blue numbers on his forehead.”

“It’s the meat bag! Like on the video. Hold him. There’s big money for him.”

“Yeah, grab him. Call the cops.”

Several of the big ones closed to pull and paw at him until BoyTen thought he would go insane. KeeperJohn had taught him to always mind keeper folk, but this was too much!

He shrieked so that his throat burned. Biting, clawing, kicking and butting, he cleared a space around himself. Several clutched bitten hands or bloody nail-scratched faces. He spun and screamed his outrage so they swayed back, then bounded forward. The fat lady before him fell, and the boy stomped across her belly and bust. His bare feet barely touched the pavement as he hurtled left, then right, under, then over. The pounding feet and angry shouts faded. Soon he huddled in a courtyard surrounded by tall brick buildings.

As he panted, BoyTen’s eyes froze and a sob hiccuped through his teeth. He’d lost them, sure, but he’d also lost his original scent trail! Worse, he couldn’t backtrack to pick it up. These big people were mean. They’d grab him if he went back. So he was truly lost now. Shivering, BoyTen dropped to the ground and wailed. The buildings around him echoed the mournful sounds until the courtyard rang with his sobs.

“Boy? Are you hurt?”

A soft, quavering voice jolted him to his feet. He jumped up and crouched, jaw jutting with teeth bared, hands raised with fingers bent to claw. Growling, he glared defiance at the woman standing in the nearest doorway. She was thin, so her wrinkled skin hung loose from her cheeks and neck. She was pale, so even her hair was the fluffy color of clouds in a blue sky. And frail! BoyTen had no doubt she would shatter into a dozen pieces if he touched her trembling frame. She was unlike any big person he’d ever met.

She called again. “Boy, are you okay? You needn’t worry. I won’t hurt you.”

He rubbed his nose on his sleeve and gulped. “Um, I’m lost. I was trying to go home, but a bunch a people grabbed me and hit me.”

She frowned and glanced at the blue marks on his head. “You can come inside if you want. I’ve got apples and bananas, and some cookies I was baking.” She held out her hand like KeeperSue.

The boy turned to flee, but stopped. Run where? The yearning to be someplace safe with a friendly person ached within him. He crept forward and took her hand. It was softer than any hand he’d ever held, and she smelled of clean and quiet. At the same time, his stomach knotted painfully as odors wafted through her open door. Yes, cookies and fruit like she said, but also bread and meat and fish and veggies, older smells from other days but all good. He shrank against her as he entered the house wide-eyed. The food-smell wrenched his throat until he whined. He grabbed an apple and banana from a bowl as soon as she sat him at a small table and laughed as he rammed first one then the other into his mouth until he cheeks bulged with the gooey fruit mush. Gulping, he cried as his stomach shuddered with pleasure.

The woman set milk and cookies in front of him and sat. “I think I know where you belong. Would you like me to call so your friends can come?”

BoyTen slurped the milk and shoved a warm sweet cookie into his mouth. “Yeth,” he mumbled and picked up another. She nodded and walked to a black phone thing by the door. She murmured at length into it. Smiling she turned back as he sat clutching the last cookie.

“They’ll be here soon. Are you full? You look tired. Would you like to lie down?”

His stomach bulged and his eyes were hot and heavy. He took her hand and she led him to a big couch in the next room like the one in KeeperDoc’s office, but lots softer. He curled up on it and the lady began to sing. KeeperSue sometimes sang, but not this song. It was about all kinds of silly things like babies and cradles and trees. He giggled even as waves of sleepiness washed over him. Soon he was afloat with a dreamy lassitude.

When he awoke, he knew a long time had passed from the way the light came in the window. BoyTen jerked up at the sound of voices. There was the nice lady’s soft quavery one, but whose was that deep booming voice? He smiled as his heart thumped. KeeperJohn! He kicked the blanket that covered him but just got tangled. Rolling, he thumped onto the floor, cutting off the voices. He grabbed the blanket and peeled it away as KeeperJohn filled the doorway.

“Hey, champ! I am so glad to see you.” The man walked over. The boy smiled, but his chin was quivering even as he did. Oh, he hated it when he blubbered and that just made it worse. Tears welled and the boy clutched the man’s heavy green coveralls.

“I’ve been such a bad boy. I snucked out the gate when KeeperBill left and took his hat and clothes, but now I lost his hat and I got lots of people mad at me…”

“It’s okay, sport. It’s all over. I’m not mad.” KeeperJohn rubbed the boy’s back and said this over and over until the tears stopped. Kneeling down, he looked the boy in the eye. “It wasn’t your fault. KeeperBill should have been more careful. You ready to go home?”

BoyTen panted at the thought. The compound, the other boys and girls, his pen! Oh, he couldn’t wait. “Yes! Now, please.”

“I’ll just be a minute. I have to finish talking to Mrs. McCarty.”

He stood holding the boy. “I really can’t tell you how grateful Universal Medical Supplies is, ma’am. This little fellow is worth a small fortune.”

The old woman frowned. “They had his picture posted at the store but the manager there called him a meat bag. I didn’t understand that.”

KeeperJohn frowned and snorted like he did when he was angry. BoyTen clutched tighter. “That’s a nasty word. This young fellow is a donor-clone. One of Universal’s clients paid us to grow a clone from his own tissues for use as an organ donor.”

“But they’re going to take his heart and liver and such someday, aren’t they?”

“Oh, yes. His owner has contracted for the normal array of transplants; organs, corneas, endocrine glands and marrow. But this little guy’s lucky. His owner also asked for a full skin transplant, and he isn’t big enough. We’ll start hormone therapy soon to force him to stretch out, but he still has years yet.”

“Oh, dear,” she sighed with a tremor in her voice.

“Don’t worry, ma’am. He’ll live a wonderful life full of fun and happiness, until one night he’ll go to sleep. And that will be it.”

BoyTen clutched KeeperJohn. There was so much he didn’t understand! And the tone of KeeperJohn’s voice was scary.

“Besides, you’re entitled to a sizable reward. You’ll be getting a call from the main office. Please don’t talk to any media people before then. Universal will pay very well for your discretion.”

The old woman smiled at last, and BoyTen smiled back. “You ready to go home?” KeeperJohn asked.

BoyTen nodded and pushed the big man’s chin around until he faced the door. KeeperJohn laughed and walked out the front door.

“Bye!” the boy called over KeeperJohn’s shoulder and waved to the nice lady.