Friday, 23 March 2012

Story 11 - Hard Boiled Pulp

I arrive at the office to find a gun on my desk. Nothing else; just a gun. A point two-five caliber Chinese pistol. Black. Late 1930s model I’m guessing. Useful for killing someone at point blank range and not much else. Usually carried by errand boys, rich housewives and nervous bosses. Before touching the gun I calmly pull up the chair behind my desk, sit down; run my hard worn fingers across the little hair I have left; contemplate what to do about this unexpected arrival.

The office smells fresh today. It’s been cleaned since I was here last. The window is open, spring air pouring in from outside. Little birds are fluttering around the room, twittering the melody of our latest big dance number. Pulling open the top draw of my desk, I take out the bottle of Jim Beam, pour myself a slug; knock it back with all the tenacity of an illegal immigrant. A God damn beautiful morning.

I pick up the gun, open the muzzle. Smell it. Look at the barrel. It hasn’t been fired; at least recently. However, only four of the cartridges are loaded: two bullets are missing.

Taking the phone I dial the home number of my secretary, Mabel. The latest in a long line of assistants, she’s been in the job for two months and suffered no mental scares as yet. Married to a faceless accountant who goes by the name of a simple Mr. Brown where I’m concerned, homed up in a suburban bungalow in a street full of identical bungalows each with a single orange tree in the garden, beware of dog sign on the gate, sprinklers timed to switch off before the watershed. Not too bright but loyal as hell, she’s happy to fill the duller parts of her life with running my chores and cleaning up the paperwork. Arrives late and goes home when she feels like it, but asks no questions and so far has given no advice concerning my manners or wellbeing. I like her. And I need her out of the way. She mustn’t be placed in any unnecessary danger.

Mabel receives my call with a predicable, “2543, the Brown residence?” Her question mark hangs in the air, waiting for me to state my business. I breathe into the receiver, needing another hit from old Jim. An idea is slowly formulating inside my aged brain; although the bolts aren’t quite in place.

“Is that you Tom?”

So this must be her husband’s name. At least I hope it is: For some reason I take a slight comfort in my secretary’s comparatively mundane existence of suburban marital bliss.

“Harry? It's Harry isn’t it. Sorry I’m just on my way. There was a small disaster we had with the neighbor’s dog and our washing line and… well never mind. It is Harry I assume?”

“Yeah it’s Harry.”

“The Colonel Mathews report is ready for posting. I’ve made an additional -”

“- Never mind Colonel Mathews for now, I need you to do me a favor.”

“Of course Harry, what is it?”

“I need you to take the day off.”

“Take the day off? Why? Is everything all right?”

“Everything’s fine Mabel. I simply need…” and here is a sentence I think a lot about in the short silent hours spent away from the distractions of my work and the bars and the women and the bottom of yet another bottle of Jim. I need a larger bank account; a nicer car. A place out by the great lakes where I can breakfast on the eggs from my own chickens and milk from my own cows. Served to me by a swell wife with ample breasts, a kiss on the lips to tell me what a great husband I’ve always been.

“Harry! What do you need?”

An idea has come to me. Possibly was always there and has just surfaced to say hello, grab some air.

“On second thoughts Mabel, you could do something. There’s a coffee house on Beacon Street opposite the Grand View Park. Its name is Santos. You know it?”

“Yeah, I know it Harry. The one with the line of call boxes outside.”

“That’s right. I need you to go there and wait for me. Take your time. I won’t be there for a few hours yet. But you don’t see me by five o’clock I want you to call Sergeant Grip at the police department. Ask him to have some of his men come to my office.”

“You’re not in any trouble are you?”

My eyes fall to the pistol once more: “To be honest Mabel I’m not sure. But an old friend has just turned up. And it sure as hell wasn’t to wish me a happy Christmas.”

Saturday, 10 March 2012

Story 10 - Outpost 269

Now that the cat has died I can leave. Three thousand days alone on this godforsaken hunk of metal in the middle of space, with nothing so much as a passing comet… I’ve murdered my only living companion. But I had to get out of this interminable cycle of non-events. Away from the mess I signed up for at the age of twenty-one, na├»ve, excited over the prospect of leaving my home planet for a life of adventure. A promise of a post aboard a starship after the minimum three years of service. They seem to have forgotten me. Once a week I talk to a computer back on Earth. Nothing to report. All is functioning at a perfect level of accuracy. What am I waiting for? The sun to explode?

Outpost 269 reporting in. What is your status? Status normal. Observations? No observations. Equipment efficiency level? Fully functional at one hundred percent. Status of cat? Alive and well. Prepare for scan.

I move into the cubicle for a full body scan that records my mental and physical health. I’ve no idea how it works. But recently have begun to suspect that it’s not accurate. Otherwise, why did I kill the cat? Why not simply put in for a transfer? They might have listened this year. I could have at least tried.

Over eight years I’ve been here. Checking one section at a time I start with engineering in level A; finish with the observation room (F) on Friday and then at the weekend, donning my space suit, I examine the outside surface for faults. Once a month a pod arrives with more food supplies. The routine of non-events at least has some consistency.

Making my way around this tiny excuse for a space station, I hope against hope for something to go wrong. A sun storm to interfere with my settings. For a crack in the panelling. Stray bolts to be blemished by the unlikely event of rust. An alien attack even.

If it wasn’t for the cat I would have gone mad a long time ago.

I’m not talking to myself. I’m conversing with the cat. Its name is Nibbles. Or rather, it was. Used to be. Former name. Now it’s just “the cat.”

Nibbles would be hard to find at first. As a kitten it was difficult to get him to eat. “Nibbles!” I’d shout. “Nibbles… dinner time!” I’d find him hiding behind a canister of liquid nitrogen in section D. In a bundle of sheets in my living quarters. Or often he’d be high above the space between the lighting and ceiling tiles. Watching me. Observing my every move. Wary but interested in my behaviour.

Once I’d started to hand feed him we began to make a connection. Soon Nibbles was following me everywhere. In the evenings we’d lie on my bed together. I’d massage his head, rubbing the back of his ears. Nibbles used to like that. And his purring would provide me with comfort. I was looking after another living being, a life that depended entirely upon my own.

“Breakfast time Nibbles. How about some milk? Ok, we’d better get to work.” Sometimes in the evenings we’d play hide-and-seek. “Where are you Nibbles? There you are!” There was a favourite piece of yellow and green tape I’d throw high into the air. The friction of this movement would cause it to crackle. Nibbles would come running into the room eager to entertain us by chasing, catching and assuring his dominance over the object.

On the last day he knew. We’d spent too long together for there to have been any chance of me fooling him. Plus I’d started referring to him as “the cat” once again. As I had done on the first few months of us living together. Because I was planning it. The idea had already formed inside my head long before.

“The cat’s going to have to go,” I’d mumble. “It’s the only way. I love the cat; the cat loves me, but eventually… one day, not today, but one day…”

My excuse will be that the cat found its way into the waste disposal chute without my knowledge. The truth being that I put it there knowingly, deliberately – an execution.

Nibbles didn’t struggle. He looked me in the eyes and blinked. And I knew then that he was happy to give up his life for mine. As I watched him; watched it fly into the vacuum of space and finally explode I was overcome with sadness for the loss of my only friend. But silently I held the tears back.

Returning to my room I shaved, showered, prepared myself mentally for what I was going to say in my weekly interview. The excuse I would make. And then, with an action that can only be deciphered as a spur of the moment spot of madness, I carved his name (N-I-B-B-L-E-S) into my forearm using a razor blade.

“Outpost 269 reporting in. Status normal. No observations. Equipment efficiency level is fully functional at a hundred percent. The cat however, has died.” I begin to laugh, more at myself that at the machine in front of me. “It’s dead,” I mutter. Then hesitate before confessing that, “I killed it.”

“Prepare for body scan,” is the response.

Hesitantly I move into the cubicle, ready to record my mental and physical health. I can still hear meowing and, for a moment, a future of happiness flashes before my eyes.