Endless Walk

The snow fell, quietly, relentlessly.  Each footstep crunched as flakes were packed tightly together on the ground.  Soon enough, more flakes filled the impressions, erasing them.  There was little wind and no other sound.  In the dark of the night, the snow provided its own luminescence.

Nothing else moved.  He walked, and the rest of the world might have been empty.  Where he went did not matter.  No one waited for him.  No one was looking for him.  Perhaps no one even knew he existed.  And it did not matter.

The cold provided its own version of comfort.  It demanded nothing, asked nothing.  It shared of itself freely, embracing everything in its purview.  The snow was its messenger, the blanket it provided the world.  It accepted his movement, ignoring the disturbance.

He walked all night, and the snow kept pace.  One foot in front of the other; one flake on top of another.  Only with the first hint of sunrise did he stop.  He laid down where he was and fell asleep.  But the meager light did not drive away the cold, nor deter the snow.  It continued to fall.

The Automatic Man

“What is it?”  The boy sounded skeptical of what he saw.

The engineer ignored his tone, however; the smile never faded from his lips.  “It is an automatic man.  My own invention.  First of its kind.”  He was a father, beaming with pride about his newborn son.

“How does it work?”  His assistant still didn’t seem to have the proper appreciation for his creation.

“Well, first, there is the fire in the cast iron belly.  That drives the gears and pistons.  Some of them are so small, some of my finest work.  Then . . .   Come here.  You cannot see it properly from over there.”  The engineer carefully removed the metal plate covering the back of the head.  “Back here . . .  You see all of these small switches?  Adjusting these in different ways allows you to set the machine to perform a variety of tasks.  Lenses for the eyes focus light and conducting wire carries sound; both help provide external feedback to the mechanisms.  You see?”

The boy nodded, though it was obvious he did not see at all.

“I assume some of those switches allow it to use a pneumatic gun?”

The engineer scowled at the sound of the new voice, but he managed to suppress it before turning around to face the man in a grey uniform who stood in the doorway of his workshop.  “Of course.  It can be used for many tasks, even ones as simple as that.”

The office ignored the subtle insult.  “Good.  Good.  And how quickly can you produce them?”

“Well, I cannot say for certain.  This took some time.  It is not as though I have a factory dedicated to the job.”

“Ah, but I do.  And we cannot wait any longer for these miracle machines of yours.  Do you have the plans?  We need to begin at once.”

It was all happening too quickly.  He needed to stall for time.  Find some way to keep this work out of the hands of the military.  “No.  I have just finished.  I have yet to even test it.  There has been no time to draw up plans.”

The smile on the officer’s face was not pleasant.  “You have tested it.  I know you.  You would not be bragging, even to your assistant, unless you knew it worked.  If you do not have plans drawn up, I will simply take this one so my men can fashion plans from the original.”  He waved his hand, and two other uniformed men entered the workshop.  They loaded the automaton onto a cart and wheeled it out.  The engineer wanted to protest, but he knew it would be fruitless.

“Do not worry.  Your creation is in good hands.  And your service to the country is not unappreciated.”  The officer produced a large pouch and tossed it on to a workbench.  The coins inside clattered against one another.  “I may have another task for you soon.”  He nodded and left.

The engineer chided himself for thinking he could keep this from the military.  But he knew he did not have the luxury for lengthy self-recrimination.  He had to figure out a way to get the automaton back.

Leaving Behind

Without any furniture, the house seemed smaller somehow.  There was more space, and sounds carried further, but the house was less.  Less warmth, less life, less . . . everything.  It bothered him.  All he wanted to do was go through one more time to make sure there was nothing left behind.

But everywhere he turned, he saw something he couldn’t take with him.  There was the freshly painted wall where his son had used crayons to scribble a masterpiece.  The dining room held years of dinner conversations.  And the bedroom . . .  So much left behind.

The house was empty of things and full of memories.  The effect was jarring.  Bare floors and bare walls mocked every echo of reminiscence, suggesting it had all been a lie.  Someone new would be moving in, making their own memories, painting over those he was leaving.

The laughter and the tears in the living room made him question how he could walk away, leave so much here to be forgotten.  Then he reached the front door.  So many hellos.  And one more goodbye.  It overshadowed everything else.  He looked back at the house, full of his past, trading it all so that he could get rid of that one goodbye, and he wondered if even that was enough.

The Waiting

“How much longer do we have to wait?”

“The Seer said the guy would be at this corner wearing a black sweatshirt just before eleven.  So we have about five minutes, okay?”

“Okay.”  The waiting seemed eternal.  “What are going to do with him?”

“Grab him.  Take him back to the hotel.  Don’t you remember anything?”

“No.  I mean, yeah, we grab him, but then what?”

“That’s for Mr. Stearn to decide.  We just deliver him.  Any other questions?”

“No.  I guess not.”  He sat quietly after that, not wanting to annoy the other man further.  The minutes passed slowly.  Finally, he saw the guy.  “That’s him, right?”

The other man followed to where he was pointing.  “Yeah, that’s him.”

“Good.  Let’s go get him.”  He started to open his door when the other stopped him.

“No.  We’re leaving.”

“What?!  Why?”

“What time is it?”

“Just after eleven.  Why?

“And what color sweatshirt is he wearing?”

“Red.  What is going on?”

“This is off.  The time.  The color.  Something has changed.  The Seer doesn’t make mistakes.  This is wrong.  We go back.”

“Seriously?”

“Yes, seriously.  This much discrepancy requires regrouping.  Maybe go talk to the Seer again.”

“We waited all this time . . .”

“Don’t care.  Let’s go.”

Asymptotic Transversality

Do you ever have phrases just pop into your head, no idea what they mean or even if they are real phrases?

I was just sitting here, staring at my notepad, pen in hand, not writing.  It is Thanksgiving, so something about being thankful seemed appropriate, but nothing was coming.  There are a lot of different tricks I use to try to get the words to start flowing.  Sometimes I use prompts.  But often I try to clear my head and let opening lines, characters, situations, or some such suggest themselves to me, hoping one of them will strike a chord and lead me to something more.  And sometimes the page stays blank.

A phrase popped into my head: asymptotic transversality.  No joke.  That phrase appeared, fully formed, in my mind.  I had no idea what it meant or what it was doing there.  So I followed it around a bit, see where it might take me.  My first thought took me to science fiction.  Perhaps it was some sort of measurement or phenomenon that a futuristic device could scan for.  But that thought stopped there, refusing to go further.

So I tried again.  This time, it was a completely nonsense phrase that a character used to try to impress people.  Maybe it was even part of a pick-up line, to show how smart he was.  That, however, seemed like a stretch, even for me.  I began to think this was just one of those creative dead ends, and it was time to move on.

But I was just curious enough to search for the phrase online.  Sure enough, it is a mathematical concept.  Based on a few sentences on the first page of the search results, I couldn’t hope to explain it.  Maybe if I did some research and studied for a bit, but my curiosity didn’t take me that far.  It has been a long time since I last found myself in a math class, and I don’t think I’ve heard it before.  But it seems strange to think I just happened to independently come up with a phrase that actually has some meaning in an academic discipline.

So as I sit here, this Thanksgiving, trying to come up with stories and thinking about obscure mathematical concepts I can’t remember ever coming across before, I am amazed at the mysterious workings of the human mind.  I am thankful for it, on top of every other thing I have to be thankful for.

But seriously, how did that pop into my head?

What It’s All About

“The award ceremony is tomorrow night.  I expect to see you there.”

“Thank you for letting me know.  I’ll be there.”

The other end of the phone line clicked silent.

“Who was that?”  His wife was already prepared to retire for the evening.

“It was one of the members of the award committee.  He wanted to make sure I would be at the banquet tomorrow.”

“Does that mean . . . ?”

“I would think so.  Why else call?  That award is mine.”

“Oh, John.  That’s wonderful.  I know how hard you worked for it.”

He couldn’t contain his grin.

*     *     *

“John, we really need your help.”

“But . . .”

“I know it’s the day before Thanksgiving, but two of the people who were supposed to be here canceled.  If we don’t get help, we won’t be able to get this meal done.  A lot of people will go hungry.  You’re the only person I know who can help.  Please.”

“I’m sorry, but . . .”

Before he could finish, his wife grabbed the phone from him and used one hand to cover the mouth piece.

“How would it look for you not to help the shelter?  Tonight, of all nights?”

“But the award ceremony . . .”

“Exactly!”  She was always good at whispering a yell.

“Ok.  Fine.”  He accepted the receiver back.  “Barb?  Yeah, I’ll be at the shelter in half an hour.”  He hung up the phone.  “You go to the banquet.  If it goes smoothly, I should be there before the announcement.”

She nodded and kissed him on the cheek.

*     *     *

It did not go smoothly.  Even with him, they were short-staffed and preparing the meal took longer than expected.  Every time he looked at the clock, he felt more urgency to leave, and that led to one mistake after another.  Finally, on the serving line, he knew he wouldn’t make it.  He couldn’t keep a scowl from his face as he placed slices of turkey on paper plates.

His phone rang, and he excused himself to answer it.  It was his wife.

“How did it go?”

“Honey . . .”

“Did you give the speech for me?”

“John . . .  Robert Thompson won.”

“What?”

“Robert Thompson is the Humanitarian of the Year.  You were runner-up.”

“Runner-up?  That can’t be . . .”

“I’m sorry.”

Barb was giving him impatient looks.  “I’ve got to go.  I’ll see you at home.”

He went back to the line, but impatience had turned to frustration and even resentment.  All this work, and nothing to show for it.  He tried to smile at the elderly woman who thanked him, but his heart wasn’t in it.

Of Gods and Mages

“Be quiet, or a mage will come for you!”  His eldest stopped fidgeting in his chair and turned pale.

His daughter, though, looked puzzled.  “Papa?  What is a mage?”

“Someone who uses magic against the King’s commands.  They are evil and punish children who misbehave.”  He aimed that last squarely at his eldest.

The girl, on the other hand, looked mystified.  “Why does the King not want them to use magic?”

She looked at him with expectant eyes.  His wife merely shrugged, refusing to participate.  He turned back to his daughter.  “The gods do not want any but their chosen to use magic.  The King enforces their will.”

“How does the King know what the gods want?”

“Because he is the King.”  The girl always asked a lot of questions, but this time was particularly exasperating.  Could she not understand the role of the King?

“Does the King talks to the gods?”

“I suppose so.”

“And they do not like magic?”

“Well, they do not like magic practiced by mages.”

“Why not?”

“Enough!  We do not question the commands of the gods!”  His wife’s disapproving look told him to control his temper.  “I am sorry for yelling.  But it is forbidden to question the will of the gods or their King.  We must accept what they say.  Do you understand?”

She nodded silently, obviously afraid to anger him again.

He sighed.  “Do not be afraid.  Behave, do as you are told, mind the gods, and nothing bad will happen.  Do you understand?”

She nodded again, a little more life in it this time.

“Good.  Now let us finish the meal.”