Image

Deal 998: Illusions

The audience quieted (aside from the inevitable heckler) as the curtains opened on a new setting. One thing they were sure of was that something amazing was going to happen. But they saw before them a fairly ordinary set familiar to just about any modern sitcom. The open plan ranch house was mostly represented in photographic drops, but the standard family sized sofa was front and center, complete with an abandoned letter jacket, some sports shoes dropped messily, and a pizza box tossed haphazardly on the coffee table.

But there were not actors to be seen, so they quieted down in anticipation.

Except for the heckler, again.

As the lights came up on this prosaic scene, they noticed that the pizza box was moving. It had started out tossed aside on the table, but turned towards the audience, then canted up a bit and the front row suddenly got nervous. It was looming at them. Then it opened and began to speak. It was using halves of an apple for eyes, and a stale pizza slice as a tongue.

It raised up further as it set out on a bit of classic oratory.

The scene was so outrageous that when discussing it later, people couldn’t agree on what the box had actually said. Everyone was sure it said something, and said it well.

As it spoke, the front row calmed. Not the heckler, though. He got louder, and revealed himself as definitely not the gentleman in the room as he taunted the box mercilessly. The box just turned and stared at him. Eventually he wound down and went silent, and finally sat back down. It was the most professional treatment of a heckler that most had seen.

Finally, some people joined the box on the stage. As they entered, the box seemed to suddenly realize it was an inanimate object, and dropped back down on the coffee table. It didn’t quite remember to pull its tongue back in though.

The couple had a fairly predictable sitcom argument about the mess in the room and junior’s grades. Then the man settled down on the couch, stretched out, and dozed off. That was the wife’s moment to exact her revenge. She pulled out a sheet, tossed it over the man’s legs. He didn’t stir. So she added the pizza box to his belly, then pulled the sheet all the way over him.

He mumbled something inarticulate, but didn’t stir.

Then the whole sheet shifted a little. Then a little more. Then we realized it was lifting up and off the couch.

It raised up to where it’s tails were just dragging on the furniture when the woman suddenly noticed it. She screamed.

The she grabbed at the sheet and just barely caught a corner as it flew up, yanking the sheet away to reveal nothing at all. No lay-about husband. No pizza box. The couch was empty. The sheet was just a sheet.

Finally she balled up the sheet and threw it at the sofa, where it lay still.

Perfectly still.

Everyone held the breath, sure that there was one more twist to come from somewhere.

She stepped back to the couch, picked up the sheet and wrapped it around herself as a cloak, flipping a corner up to hide her hair.

A sudden bright flash and cloud of smoke cleared to reveal the sheet falling to the stage and the woman gone completely.

Then the lights went out.

Image

Deal 969: Magic Reminder

Magic mirrors can never be trusted.

It is true that they will answer any question with a true image.

But the user is responsible for asking the right question, and for interpreting the image.

The mirror can lie most completely while still strictly showing nothing but the truth. The wrong picture of the true thing can lead to the most unfortunate conclusions.

The old witch was getting sloppy in her old age, tending to forget things she had set out to do. She asked her mirror to remind her, and it usually did. But it faithfully reminded her of exactly what she asked, not inferring anything about the requests.

As a result, she was prepared for a different gentleman than the one that knocked on the door.

He wasn’t sure what to expect, but what answered the door was not it.

Image

Deal 938: Arrival, watched.

The uniforms were orange.

At a distance at least, they seemed fairly evenly colored. Up close, it became clear that there was a fine black stripe pattern worked into the orange fabric. The stripes were mostly vertical, but some trick of the design meant that no matter what position the uniform was in, there were vertical stripes.

Still, the overall orange tone made them stand out and pop against the grey walkways, grey walls, and generally grey clothing worn by the civilians. And yet, if you looked away and the guard stood still, the stripes would somehow take over your perception and they would fade away into the background.

The Station Keeper travelled with several guards. The dockside is always a rough place, and the law is pretty much the pragmatic result of everyone’s guards keeping little bubbles of orderly and safe spaces. Luckily the necessary geometry of the station made snipers mostly ineffective, allowing safety to be a close-in issue.

And yet, there are exceptions to every rule.

So here I am, dressed in a mottled grey smock streaked with hand-painted black lines that match the character of the bit of superstructure I’ve been hugging for the past four hours, biding my time. When it comes, I’ll have at best a narrow window of opportunity. If I’m very lucky, the guards will never know what happened and I can just sit tight for another hour or two until it is safe to draw attention by moving. If I’m unlucky, I’ll be spotted and then it won’t go so well for me.

Perched in the artificial sky, among the utility runs and light panels, I have a view of the docks normally only seen by the security cameras. I’m actually tucked in right beside a camera now. I’ve mapped out its pan and tilt limits, and I believe I am beyond its reach. This particular camera is not equipped with a microphone, so it is unlikely to have heard me crawling into place. In any case, I timed my arrival to coincide with a docking so that any vibration or sound I inadvertently made would have a simple, obvious, and wrong explanation.

It has been long enough that the necessary quarantines, pressure equalization, and bureaucratic forms have all been followed. All that is left is for the Keeper to greet the Captain and formally grant him and his crew access to the docks. That would be my best opportunity at a clear shot.

The Keeper’s guard have taken up positions around her, with eyes looking outward, inward, upward, and downward. The latter possible because the access point is a mesh catwalk positioned to match the port in use. They don’t act as if I’ve been spotted, and as they fade away I become increasingly confident that I’ll get my shot. I’m watching through my scope, with the hatch centered and filling my field of view when I see the caution lights begin to flash.

That is my cue to start my recorder.

Everyone in the area pauses. This is the moment when we find out for certain that our protocols worked, and the hatch really is opening on a friendly vessel, and not an enemy of the state running a false flag. That is always the worry, even though it should not be possible. By the time a dock is granted, the identity of the vessel has been confirmed through every sort of telemetry signature possible, on top of her official and probably falsifiable transponder codes and broadcast identity beacon.

This time everyone is confident. Keeper is here in person, not by proxy or avatar. The section doors are open to either side of this bay, but per protocol no one is loitering in their path. The climate control curtains are in place, but not hard air-tight seals.

There have been stories of dead stations caused by overconfidence. An enemy using stolen transponders or even a hijacked ship to dock and vent a station to hard vacuum before the section doors could close. Open a large enough door and any station can be killed.

If that happens here today, then my fate is sealed and I will be among the first to die.

But no one has doubts, or Keeper would not be here in person and the doors would be closed.

And there shouldn’t be a problem. The ship on the other side of that unassuming hatchway is rumored to be carrying our Emperor, and we are a loyal way station of the Empire. All the tests passed, all the recognition codes were good. They likely have more to fear from us than we from them. Which is why I’m nervous even where Keeper isn’t.

It’s my job to be nervous.

I’m the advance team’s forward scout.

And I know that the Emperor is not due here for another month or more. The rest of the advance team is at least a week away. And yet the station is acting as if they expect the Emperor himself. So I know that something is very wrong.

So here I am, nestled in the overheads, with my sights and recorder trained on that hatch, waiting to see who or what is on the other side, ready to take action if needed.

I do hope I’m not needed.

Image

Deal 937: Batting around

Prudence has never been my watchword. I tend to flit around willy-nilly and just assume it will all work out. So far, that strategy has worked fairly well, but I expect that can’t last forever.

I’m not afraid of much, as I have the power of the press behind me. A wise man once said “never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel.” I’m not that man, but I do work for him. I’m his beat reporter. And a bat part time. And a drummer, so I suppose I’m a back beat bat beat reporter.

Obviously I don’t write the humor column.

Being a bat a lot of the time, I see and hear things that others assume were secret. Everyone assumes bats are blind, but that has never been true. And our hearing is remarkable. I’m small and inconspicuous, and hang neatly under many sorts of eaves. I guess the word “eavesdropping” was coined to describe me.

Most bats, however, don’t own a classic Selectric typewriter, or have newspaper editors waiting for their submissions.

I’m not most bats.