We are thrilled to publish the three winning short stories from the Worth Your Salt: A Fiction Contest, beginning with this runner-up piece, “Surrogate” by Aleksander Sievert. To enter the contest, each writer chose one of three prompts, each an excerpt from Jeff Smieding’s serial ebook, And In Their Passing, A Darkness: The Salt Machine (Red Sofa Books), and used it in their story. “Surrogate” uses the following Salt Machine excerpt: “‘Vera?’ he called out again. All he could hear was the ratatatat of rain on the leaves and the ground.” Extensive thanks to Red Sofa Books and our fantastic judges, David Oppegaard and Esther Porter.
by Aleksander Sievert
Vera?” he called out again. All he could hear was the ratatatat of rain on the leaves and the ground.
“I am Beverage Dispenser Unit 2.0.” stated a high-pitch mechanical voice from behind him.
“Shut up!” A furious Dr. Zemenski whirled around and punted the droid into the brush. The vending-bot crashed into the broad side of an ancient redwood with a shower of sparks. The doctor raced over to it.
“No! No, no, no! What have I done?!”
“I am…” Beverage Dispenser Unit 2.0 blinked its beverage selection scree twice. “Beverage Dispenser… U—U—U—”
“Shhh.” The doctor placed a finger over the spout of the badly damaged robot. “I—Work, you piece of junk, work!”
“Two. Point. Oh-oh-oh-oh.”
A large jolt gripped the doctor.
Everything went black.
A man with thinning copper hair and wearing a pristine white lab coat sits on a blue chiffon sofa in a well furnished apartment. All the walls are windows. A star-dappled night sky broods over a picaresque sunset. Two birds fly by. A woman with butterscotch curls and wearing a periwinkle petticoat walks in, wheeling a suitcase behind her.
“You can’t do this to me. Please Vera—I’ll make more time for you, I promise. I’m almost there, I almost have it.” He stands up. “And when I do, everything will change. Don’t you see? This is it. This is—everything will change. Vera.”
He moves to touch her cheek, but she backs away.
“The world! Everything! When I’m done, humanity will have defeated death itself. The Zemenski name—our name—will be engraved on monuments in every city on the planet!”
“I will be at my mother’s. When you are ready to sign the papers, you may call her. I’ve arranged to have the rest of my things picked up on Saturday.”
“Vera.” His voice deepens, crackles, “You will not leave me. Not like this.”
The woman purses her lips. “I am not one of your machines, Nicholas.”
The man stands in silhouette against the mango sky. The sound of a door opening. Closing.
Another bird flies by.
Doctor Zemenski had been recalibrating Thermostatron to display temperatures in ZemenskiMetrics. He had just finished and was ready to give it a test run when his (second most) prized helper-bot wheeled into the room with a tray of scones.
“Is master feeling a bit peckish?” The very British robot inquired, hoisting the delicacies to the doctor’s eye level.
“Not right now, Jeeves-O-Matic. This… aught to… do it.”
Thermostatron sat dormant for a moment, then blipped twice. The thermometer-shaped droid hoisted itself up on two spindly legs and boldly proclaimed the temperature to be a balmy -23.82764 Degrees Zemenski.
The doctor smiled, stroking the goatee that ice-cream-coned from his chin. He accessed the “Settings” menu of Thermostatron and tapped the “Mute” button.
“Another triumph sir?”
“Yes, if I do say so myself.”
“Very good sir!”
The doctor perused the tray of freshly baked scones and absconded with one to the Zemenski Hall of Accomplishments. Jeeves-O-Matic followed a pace behind.
“Would sir enjoy a triumphant ditty?”
The helper-unit activated its music module.
“Zemenski is the champion, my friend. And he’ll keep inventing to the end…”
“Any news from the mundane world today?” Crumbs flew out of his mouth as he spoke.
“Sir hasn’t inquired about the mundane world in quite some time.”
“I’m in a good mood.”
“Accessing local router… local router accessed. Accessing ZemenskiNet… ZemenskiNet unavailable.”
The doctor raised a very bushy eyebrow. “Unavailable?”
A crack of thunder careened through the stainless steel hallway.
“I believe that very large storm may be interfering with sir’s satellite relay.”
“What very large storm?”
“I am quite certain Meteorologyzmo briefed sir on it last night at dinner.”
“That pile of junk? Never listen to it. What’s the use? I never go outdoors anymore.”
Jeeves-O-Matic blinked its “Standby” light in disapproval and turned up the volume for the finale of the song.
“Zemenski, Zemenski. Zemenski, Zemenski. No time for losers, Zemenski is the cham—”
The appropriated tune ended abruptly.
“Sir! Alarming news!”
“Is ZemenskiTV down too?”
“No sir, I just received word on the local network. It’s Madame! She’s gone!”
Several hours later, Zemenski puffed furiously on a Z-cigarrette. He was seated at a giant touchscreen table. It displayed a map of Zemanidu. Every room in the complex was crossed out in furiously squiggled X’s.
Jeeves-O-Matic entered the room.
“Sir, I have found the last droid who saw Madame before she left.”
“She didn’t leave, she was kidnapped. She had to have been. I knew I should never have uninstalled that tracking chip. But we were getting along so well…”
“It is doubtful it would have worked in this weather, sir.”
“If I had installed ZemenskiTrack it would have. ZemenskiTrack doesn’t use satellites.”
“A truly miraculous invention, sir.”
It certainly was. The technology was inspired by his great-grandfather, who had found water on the old Zemenski farm using nothing but a pair of bent clothes hangers. Of course, dowsing rods were superstitious mumbo-jumbo, but the idea of a dowsing rod (combined with a brief foray into elementary metaphysics) had revolutionized the doctor’s ability to find the ever-itinerant remote controls that commanded the Zemenski Entertainment Dome.
“Would sir care to interview the unit who last saw Madame?”
“Yes,” He sighed, brushing his tinsel comb-over, “Send it in.”
“You may come in, Beverage Dispenser Unit 2.0.”
There was long delay, followed by the loud whirring of old motors. A cylindrical machine that made the doctor and his wife coffee every morning sailed into the room.
“Where and when did you last see my wife?”
The droid responded in a synthesized voice, “I am Beverage Dispenser Unit 2.0. Please select beverage.”
“Where. Is. My. Wife?”
“Accessing database… item not found. Please select another beverage.”
“How is this—this anachronism—supposed to help me?”
“Let me speak to it, sir.”
Jeeves-O-matic bleeped and blooped. Beverage Dispenser Unit 2.0 bleeped and blooped. Minutes of bleeping and blooping, then:
“Sir, it appears Madame left just before the storm.”
“Then she’s gone… and with her, any hope of us starting over.”
“Not completely sir. It appears Madame has something in her possession that may be of use to us.”
“Her cat mug, sir.”
“Her cat mug? Why would—Of course, her cat mug!”
So retrofitting all of his vending machines with ZemenskiTrack had not been a waste of time after all— Not that the doctor could ever have anticipated a device meant to improve the collection of used dishes would be instrumental in tracking down his wife.
“Haha! Always did have a sentimental attachment to that stupid old mug with a cat on it. Jeeves-O-Matic, fit this dispenser with radar and exo-legs, post-haste!”
“One more thing—Did it see who kidnapped her?”
More bleeping and blooping.
“It appears, sir, she left of her own volition.”
The doctor cracked the Z-cigarette, slammed the table, and malfunctioned more dramatically than the LawnCareMaster at ZemenskiFest 2045.
A man with wild rusted-iron hair and a hint of a goatee stands in the middle of a room filled with computers. He wears an oil-stained lab coat. In front of him are two identical stainless steel tables. On the tables lay two unconscious women. They too are identical, naked, with curly salt-and-caramel hair. Two wires spiral from their necks into a terminal. At the terminal, sporting a pristine white lab coat, is Jeeves-O-Matic.
“Sir, psychic configuration is complete. All that’s left is to pull the plug on the previous Madame.”
“Thank you, Jeeves-O-Matic.”
The man walks up to one of the women. “I’m sorry, but… you’re just another failure.”
“If I may, sir, we did get tantalizingly close with this one.”
“Yes, yes we did.”
“And I do believe the adjustments you made in her memory this time will be just the ticket, sir.”
The man kisses the woman on the forehead and whispers, “This time, you will love me.” He pulls the chord from her neck. Her body convulses, then sprawls out flaccidly over the table
“Incinerate the remains—and begin working on her epithet for the Zemenski Hall of Failures.”
He walks to the other woman. Her eyes twitch back and forth rapidly under their lids.
“Let’s get you to your room, darling.”
Nicholas looked in the bathroom mirror and grinned.
“You’ve still got it, old man!”
From the living room: “Darling, do you think we should pack sunscreen?”
“What did the forecast say for today?”
“Mmm,” Vera walked in and rested her chin over his shoulder. “Sunny with a chance of showers.”
“Well, we’ll pack it anyway.” He gave her a quick peck, then toweled off his face.
“No more scruff?” She thumbed his bare chin and frowned.
“No more scruff.”
It was a brilliant day for a picnic. The couple bounced from one Sequoia to another like a pair of Pachinko balls.
“How old do you think they are?”
Vera thumbed through the field guide. “Great Redwoods take twenty years to mature.”
“Only twenty? Took me at least twice that long.”
She rapped the top of his head. “I’m still not sure you’re entirely all-together up there.”
He brushed a spinneret of her vanilla hair back behind her ear. She kissed him tenderly, then returned to the guide.
“Twenty years to mature, but the oldest one recorded was 3,000 years old.”
Nicholas whistled. “That’s older than your mother.”
She elbowed him. “Let’s lay out the blanket there, under that one.”
“After you, madame.”
The pair whiled away several hours over a bottle of wine and a cornucopia of heart-healthy food. (Nicholas was watching his cholesterol.) Vera leaned against the massive tree, running her fingers over the ivory-white stubble on the sides of Nicholas’ head.
Nature called, and his eyes opened.
“I’ll be right back.”
He found a promising urinal behind a break in the brush and unzipped his khakis. His gaze wandered from the stream and caught something glinting in the sun a few feet away. He zipped up and walked to the spot, brushing away dried leaves and earth to uncover a cracked porcelain coffee mug. On the side of the mug a kitten batted playfully at a ball of yarn. He cleared away more dirt to reveal a stainless steel plaque buried in the ground.
On the plaque:
“Here lies Zemenski 5.8.4. We almost got sir right this time.”
A very British voice boomed in his skull. “Psychic Protocol Breach… System Reboot in Progress.”
He stumbled wildly, tripping over a root and landing on his back.
“Nicholas, are you alright? Nicholas?!”
Storm clouds cracked the canopy so far above. A single raindrop exploded between his eyes.
Everything went black.
Artwork: Simon Stålenhag, Fokaltornen, 2013. Digital painting. www.simonstalenhag.se
Wizzywig is Ed Piskor’s fictional biography of pioneering hacker Kevin Phenicle, and the first two pages concisely foreshadow the nature of Kevin’s fame (or infamy) and the storytelling techniques Piskor uses to set Kevin’s life down on paper.
From there, we’re led through a variety of points of view. Kevin’s childhood friend Winston Smith is now an AM radio DJ, and he devotes his airtime to advocating for Kevin’s freedom. Select scenes from Kevin’s childhood are shown, with Piskor drawing the young hacker-to-be in a style reminiscent of Harold Gray’s orphan Annie. A moralizing anchorman, Ron Shumway, decries Kevin’s actions in any platform available to him. A sensationalized television reenactment in the style of Unsolved Mysteries shows Kevin as a slavering, dangerous megalomaniac.
Through all these visions of Kevin, Piskor occasionally cuts to what is ostensibly the “true” story behind the man. First person narration floats outside of panels as Kevin discovers how to rig radio call-in contests or runs from life to life in order to evade law enforcement. These glimpses are short and carefully cropped—purposefully chosen “signals” to slot in amidst all the “noise” and preserve the same high-crime, life-on-the-run narrative created by Winston Smith and Ron Shumway.
In all of it, we learn how to steal a dead person’s social security number and how to cook your own food in prison, but we never learn much about Kevin. The exact reason he pursues hacking is never stated outright. He never makes broad or pointed statements about politics or justice. All throughout, I found myself asking, “Who is Kevin? Where is he?”
The question is not a criticism, at least not in the negative sense of the word. Kevin’s life and personality is obscured by the same things everyone’s sense of self gets eroded by: fame, rumor, internet anonymity, and the grinding systems of education and work. The arc of Kevin’s life is subsumed into a thriller movie. He’s too busy running to stop and think about anything else, and too many words are being said about him for him to combat with his own point of view.
In the end, it takes an inhuman act of violence to shock Kevin from the path he’d been on. It was only in the wordless aftermath of great loss that I found myself wanting to know what Kevin was thinking. Does a fast-paced story detract from characterization or empathy? When is a plot too slick? And how can we remind ourselves to slow down and think about the people involved?
In case you missed it, we’re in the middle of publishing the three winning stories from Worth Your Salt: A Fiction Contest. Friday’s story, “And the World Fell Asleep” by Eric Martell, was a dystopian farewell. This coming Friday’s story, “Surrogate” by Aleksander Sievert, is of a slightly different nature — one which I will only hint at today. While you wait, how about you write some words inspired by the three hints below?
Simon Stålenhag, Bruksmaskiner, Brobysund, 2011. Digital painting using Wacom tablet and pen. www.simonstalenhag.se
Albert Robida, Le Sortie de l’opéra en l’an 2000 (Leaving the Opera In the Year 2000), circa 1882. Lithograph, hand-colored. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
Paul Guinan, Untitled, circa 2010. Digital illustration. www.bigredhair.com/boilerplate
P.S. Mark your calendars for Wednesday, March 19th for Worth Your Salt: A Reading, presented by Red Sofa Books and Hazel & Wren!
Come for an evening of diverse readings (including our Worth Your Salt contest winners!), music and great beer to celebrate the launch of Jeff Smieding’s ebook serial, And In Their Passing, A Darkness: The Salt Machine.
We are thrilled to publish the three winning short stories from the Worth Your Salt: A Fiction Contest, beginning with this runner-up piece, “And the World Fell Asleep” by Eric Martell. To enter the contest, each writer chose one of three prompts, each an excerpt from Jeff Smieding’s serial ebook, And In Their Passing, A Darkness: The Salt Machine (Red Sofa Books), and used it in their story. “And the World Fell Asleep” uses the following Salt Machine excerpt: “One night, near the end of an unusually cool and cloudy summer, it was George’s turn to cry.” Extensive thanks to Red Sofa Books and our fantastic judges, David Oppegaard and Esther Porter.
And the World Fell Asleep
by Eric Martell
One night, near the end of an unusually cool and cloudy summer, it was George’s turn to cry. He wasn’t the last one left. That dubious honor would go to one of the Tasswell twins, maybe, or to Old Man Rogers – if there was a tougher son of a bitch in the panhandle, George hadn’t met him – but with Mabel gone, he was the last who mattered.
He didn’t want to follow his wife quite yet, and the night wouldn’t last forever, so George wiped his tears on the sleeve of his flannel shirt and resumed digging. The sun, cloud-covered as it may be, would warm the ground and make for easier work, but he’d stand out like a sore thumb on the plains, a lone man highlighted against the dull grey sky. George remembered nights from his youth when it would be ninety, ninety-five, even in the dead of night, but now even south Texas was lucky to see that as a high once or twice a year. The same people who didn’t care that what they were pumping into the air made the world hotter were the same people who didn’t have any idea what the stuff they pumped into the air to cool it off did, and the world had fallen asleep at the switch.
Once the best grazing ground in hundreds of miles, or so George’s father claimed (and who wanted to dispute a claim like that about the family homestead), the grass worth eating out here was sparser than the hairs on George’s head. As the world started cooling and the skies had gone grey, things just stopped growing. In the north, forests died by the acre. Kansas now grew no more wheat than a good-sized family farm could’ve grown on its own. There just wasn’t enough food, and before the scientists were silenced, there had been reports that calling this a decades-long famine was way undershooting the mark.
It wasn’t fair that Mabel wouldn’t get the funeral she deserved. Mother of three, grandmother of five, teacher, Girl Scout troop leader – hers should have been the kind of life that was celebrated by a standing room only crowd at First Methodist. Instead she got an old man digging a hole in the dark. His tears would have to be enough of a memorial for her. There wasn’t enough time to erect any kind of marker, and even though a stubborn part of him wanted to make a show of defying the Ordinances, to let Old Man Rogers know that it didn’t matter how much money he’d had once upon a time, or how many guns he had now, wrong was still wrong, George knew they’d just dig her up, and they’d both be on the menu next week. No, better to hide her completely, to let nature do its work until even the hungriest dog would turn up its nose. She’d never fertilize the crops in the greenhouse, never give up that last measure of her humanity. He suspected that there were some who didn’t wait that long to reclaim life from the dead, but one of the first questions George had learned in law school was never to ask a question you didn’t know the answer to, and he really didn’t want to know the answer to that one.
George wished he could see the moon, to have some idea what time it was, but he just had to go with his gut. It didn’t seem right to take her from the dark of night and place her in the eternal dark, not his Mabel. They’d loved the lights of the night sky, but it had been weeks since even a star had poked through the clouds. Her eyes were gone – glaucoma had claimed them a while ago, and she couldn’t see the lie in his eyes when he told her about the glory of the Milky Way shining down on them as her life slipped away – but he didn’t think he’d fooled her for a second. His tears, which had temporarily retreated under the exertion, now came back, hot and harsh. He wanted to dance with her one more time, under the stars, under the moon which had bathed them in its pale glow as they’d made their first child, under the heavens that promised an eternity that heavy grey clouds denied. But there was no more eternity for them, none save the great unknown.
He’d always read stories about weight leaving the body when a person died, but she’d fought so hard to live, it only made sense that she’d resist her final journey. The thump her body made when it hit the bottom of her grave echoed alarmingly through the night, and George froze, listening for other noises in the dark. The quiet was uninterrupted, however, and he was about to turn back to his work when a light flashed on the western horizon. It was soon followed by another, the pair of lights growing closer, followed seconds later by the revving of motorcycle engines.
They wouldn’t find him right away, not if he worked quietly, but he wouldn’t have until morning as he’d hoped, and George’s heart started to race. Did he have time to cover her up and disguise her grave before they found her? To get far enough away that they wouldn’t be able to trace his activities back to this spot? He did some calculations in his head and they kept coming out the same way. He was caught.
He could try to run. The pickup was full of gas, and he had her gold jewelry, what there was of it. But he couldn’t leave her to them, not to the Old Man and his ghouls. The vows he’d taken in front of his family and his friends and his God hadn’t expired just because she’d passed away, “ ‘til death do us part” be damned. He’d do what he planned in the event something went wrong, although he didn’t really believe it had come to this.
George lifted the gas can slowly from the bed of the pickup, some plastic and three gallons of liquid, a burden that made his hands shake. It wasn’t the literal weight, though he felt a jolt in his elbow as he lifted the can, but the finality of all this. He had barely begun to understand how he could say goodbye to the woman who’d been by his side day in and day out for forty-six years, and wrapping his brain around how he was going to say goodbye to everything else was beyond his limitations.
The bottom of the grave was too dark to see Mabel’s body, but George envisioned the cold liquid covering her stiffening body, making her clothes stick to her as a penultimate obscenity. There were a lot of stories about dying with dignity, but there is nothing dignified about our exit from this world. George had seen enough death to believe that the best we could hope for was to lose our dignity in front of people who loved us too much to care, or who cared too little to notice. He emptied the entire can, whispering a prayer that he would be forgiven for what he was about to do, although he supposed it didn’t much matter if he was given divine absolution or not; there wasn’t time to do much of anything else.
The lights from the motorcycles were getting closer. He was making too much noise in the quiet of the night to hide from the searchers, and he was down to no more than a few minutes before they’d arrive. George considered waiting, delaying until the riders in the night could see him go out in a literal blaze of glory, or at least defiance, but that really wasn’t the point. He knew that Mabel would understand, and that was enough.
George pulled the lighter from his pocket and flipped back the lid. A remnant of his days as a cigar smoker, back before pressure from his daughter and his doctor got him to stop, it still fell easily into his hand. He’d always loved the solidity of the metal, the heft that reassuringly filled his pocket in the years before it was replaced with an omnipresent cell phone, and he rubbed his thumb over the monogram on the side, thinking about the Christmas when Mabel and the kids had bought it for him. He put his thumb on the wheel, ready to set spark to fuel to make flame, when he caught a gleam reflecting off the metal. His first guess was that it was the headlights from the motorcycles, but as he turned to see if they’d closed in that far already, George saw the break in the clouds and a portion of the arc of the Milky Way.
The sky wasn’t very bright, and the clouds would hide the light before long, but there was just enough of a glow for George to see the faint outline of his wife, down in their grave. He snapped the wheel and smiled at the flame. It wasn’t a good night, and what was coming up wasn’t going to be gentle, but it was his, and it was time to go. The gasoline which had soaked into Mabel’s clothes flashed blue and orange, and George stepped easily into the flames. It was time to enter eternity together.
Eric Martell is a relative newcomer to the world of writing, more often serving as a physicist, goofball, purveyor of puns fine and excruciating, and at this very moment, a chair for a five year old boy. You can find his stories on his blog, and maybe someday read a novel that he wrote during JuNoWriMo 2013, The Time Traveling Umbrella. He lives in Champaign, IL, with his wife and three sons, and can often be found on Twitter @drmagoo.
Artwork: Todd Hido, Untitled #5105, from A Road Divided series, 2008. Photograph. www.toddhido.com