The Next in Line: a flash fiction

(For the Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day seven: topic: ENDINGS)

He didn’t even knock. The intruder burst in through the cellar door of the old Gothic mansion of the world famous author, Ridley Springs, and searched for some time with flashlight in one hand and shotgun in the other until he found the writer way up on the third floor nursing a scotch and soda and watching the late night news. Springs didn’t even blink when the gunman leveled the rifle at his temple and declared it was time to talk.

“Talk away,” the author yawned, and gave his scotch a little swirl.

‘You know why I’m here,” said the gaunt young man.

“I’m sure you disapprove of something or other,” said Springs, still keeping an eye on the television screen, where fire trucks were racing to a scene and announcers sounded highly impressed.

“Shattered Dreams,” the young man said, cocking the gun.

“Aren’t they all?” mused the writer.

“I hated the ending,” the intruder shouted. “So now you’re going to change it.”

“Seriously?” Ridley Springs glanced up at his guest and properly observed him for the first time. Trenchcoat? Check. Attempted facial hair? Check. Young, white, male, check check check. Hadn’t he signed a million books for just such ones? Probably even this one, possibly even more than once.

“Well then,” Springs said, rising to his feet and ambling to his desk, where his world famous old fashioned typewriter resided, the one from which endless tidbits of authorly advice were offered to the masses, advice such as “keep your hair short and your sentences shorter”, and“don’t fall in love with your characters. They aren’t actually real”.

“How would you like it to end?” he asked, taking a seat on the throne, and cracking his knuckles in preparation. At this the young man lowered his rifle and realized the full awe of the moment. He was there, in that hallowed room, at the moment he’d dreamed a million dreams about.

“Kimberley has to live,” he said.

“But then Jason would suffer,” Springs countered.

“I don’t care about Jason,” the young man said. “He deserves to suffer.”

“Okay, Kimberley lives then,” said Ridley Springs, popping a sheet of paper into the machine and beginning to pound away on the keys.

“And another thing,” the youth advised. “I hated how you ended it in the middle of a sentence. You ought to finish that sentence. It was rude.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Springs confessed. “It was very inconsiderate. I do apologize. I will fix that too while I’m at it.” Springs had of course by this time used his foot to press the button concealed on the floor beneath his desk, the button which sounded an alarm at the local police department. He couldn’t be sure precisely how stupid this latest intruder might be, but he had a hunch.

“Is there anything else?” he asked. The visitor shook his head.

“Just fix it,” he said. “And then I’ll – “

Adopt-a-Nut: a flash fiction

(For the Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day six: topic: SPACE)

Joan was a decent sort, the kind of nutjob you don’t regret buying at the government’s Auction. Other villages had their hands full with the wackos they’d picked out, but we at North West Fang Two were satisfied with ours. Every block had to have one since they turned the public health into what they called a “distributed system”. She kept mostly to herself, wasn’t the financial burden like some. She wasn’t a saint, and there were the baseline maintenance costs. It helped that Joan’s parents had been rich enough that some money came down from Central to the Local Council. Of course we didn’t know that when we picked her out. Mostly we got her because the other choices were clearly worse; a large young male schizophrenic, an insufferably incompetent Elvis impersonator, and a perpetually pregnant paranoiac. Joan seemed glorious by contrast.

She was a short, thin anorexic with bright red hair, a constant jogger and accomplished collector. There was nothing she wouldn’t hoard. You’d see her all the time dragging rubbish of all sorts down the streets and into her tiny cottage. Sally and I took to peeking in the windows to see if we could figure out where all that junk finally got to. It seemed there couldn’t be nearly enough room in there. Our own little bungalow was about the same size and we could barely squeeze ourselves into it, let alone the piles of phone books, broken chairs, random metal bars, discarded dolls, bags of used clothing and assorted other whatnots we’d see little old Joanie carrying about. Always cheerful, with a smile and a happy greeting such as “Capitalism is Evil!” and “Mind your pants!”, Joan became quite a fixture around here. She was among the loudest singers at Church on Sundays and would never refuse to pet a friendly dog.

One day Joan caught Sal and me trying to peep through her side yard window. Sally was on my shoulders with her face pressed up against the glass.

“What do you see?” I whispered.

“There’s nothing in there,” she whispered back.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I said. “We just saw her pushing a broken motorbike in the front door yesterday!”

“Hullo Jimmy!” It was Joan, come around the back yard and standing there staring at us. Sally crawled down and tried to hide behind my back.

“Oh, hullo Joan,” I answered politely.

“Bet you’re wondering,” she smiled. “Where did it all go?”

“It did occur to me,” I mumbled.

“I’ll let you in on a secret,” she took a few steps toward me, and stretched out her arm with her hand open, palm up. Sitting there on it was a little yellow ball, like a golf ball from mini-golf.

“It’s all in here,” she said. “In my compactor. Do you want to see?”

“Um, no, that’s okay,” I said, backing away. I believed her. Why not? This whole thing was my own delusion anyway. I’m the guy they bought at North West Fang Fourteen.

Dinner and a Movie: a flash fiction

Dinner and a Movie (Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day four: topic: MOVIES)

Richmond Shelbourne and his wife Patricia were getting ready for a night out. He was carefully pulling on his paisley sweater vest while she examined her eyeliner in the bathroom mirror.

“I don’t know why we have to go to dinner and a movie,” Richmond said.

“It’s the Hamblins’ idea, dear” his wife replied. “It’s just their way.”

“I know, honey, I know,” he grumbled. “And it’s always the same. We’ll suggest Chinese and Sharon will say okay but then remember some place she saw in the Sunday paper, and pull out her clippings folder.”

“I know It’s right here somewhere,” Patricia imitated their friend, and they both chuckled.

“In the end, after sorting through the whole mess, it’ll be Chinese after all.”

“Chen Le,” Patricia nodded. “As always.”

“And then Harvey has already picked out a movie whether anybody else wants to see it or not.”

“One of those god-awful spectacles he likes so much,” Patricia added, starting to apply some more blush.

“Later, Sharon will have to talk about their little one’s latest attempts at humor.”

“Doesn’t he come up with the worst jokes?” Patricia asked.

“If you could even call them jokes,” Richmond said “Here’s one from last time. What do you call a dinosaur with no eyes?”

“What?”

“Shut up.”

“What?”

“No, that’s the punch line. Shut up. I kid you not. Then there was this one. What do you call a red zebra?”

“What?”

“There’s no such thing as a red zebra.”

“Real funny, that one,” she said. “And Harvey, he’ll go on and on with his theories about the movie we just endured. Last time it was that Planet of the Apes movie and he was relentless in his theme that the Apes were just like Indians in a cheesy Western.”

“How?” Richmond asked.

“He meant in the way that …”

“No,” Richmond interrupted. “I meant ‘How’ like the way the Indians in those movies are always saying ‘How’. Why do they say that? What does it mean?”

“Hell if I know,” Patricia shrugged.

“Why we put ourselves through it,” Richmond began, and this time it was his wife who butted in.

“For the wife-swapping, of course, you silly man,” she said. “You still like screwing Sharon, don’t you?”

“Sure,” he smiled, “and I know you like getting it on with Harvey.”

“Yes I do,” she replied, puckering her lips to apply the last of the lipstick touch ups. “Well then, shall we?”

“I suppose so,” Richmond said.

“Don’t be glum, dear,” she told him. “It’s only dinner and a movie.”

The Last Laugh: a flash fiction

The Last Laugh (Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day two: topic: REVENGE)

Sometimes he who laughs last has laughed his last laugh

by Tom Lichtenberg

“This is going to be so good,” Geremy said to the group gathered around the crummy table in the crude work kitchen area. “You’re not going to believe what I did.”

“What did you do?” asked Shirley.

“Yeah, what did you do?” repeated Vance.

“Well, you know how he’s always coming in when he’s sick, sneezing on everything, leaving his crap lying around, never cleaning up after himself?”

“He’s disgusting,” Shirley nodded.

“Totally gross,” Vance agreed.

“And you know that spoon he always uses for all that sugar he dumps in his coffee?”

“Like ten spoons a cup,” Shirley snorted.

“Like sugar,” Vance added.

“So I took that spoon and you know what I did? I let the ants walk all over it, and then I left it out again, right there with all his other nasty stuff.”

“And he’s allergic to ants!” Shirley chortled. “Totally allergic!”

“Ooh, that’s good,” Vance chimed in.

“And not only that, but I licked it too. I licked it good,” Geremy laughed his loudest laugh yet. “We’ll see who gets sick from whose germs now,” he snickered. “”Because I’m totally feeling a cold coming on.”

“He’s the one’s got it coming,” Shirley sputtered.

“You’ll show him,” Vance contributed. “Totally.”

“Show who?” asked Martin, who was just passing through.

“Jimmy Blose,” said Geremy. “He’s gonna get his.”

“For sure,” Shirley smiled.

“For realz,” Vance put in.

“Oh, you didn’t hear?” Martin asked.

“Hear what?”

“Jimmy died. Ebola, they say.”

“No shit!” Vance exclaimed.

“Oh, shit,” said Shirley, glancing at Geremy. “You didn’t really lick it, did you?”

Consolation: A flash fiction

Consolation  (Etherbooks Flash Fiction competition day one: topic: BEGINNINGS)

by Tom Lichtenberg

No one should ever have to do anything for the first time, Corina said to herself as she stood up there in the cold, and they always tell you the same thing, give you the same advice. Feel the fear and do it anyway. Go for it. Try it you’ll like it. Ha. Well I’ve got news for them. I tried it and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it when my mom made me eat that broccoli. I didn’t like it when that nasty Jimmy Blose gave me my first kiss. I didn’t like it when, I don’t even want to think about that. First times suck, and second times too for that matter. No one should ever have to do things they don’t want to do, not for the first time, not ever. Oh, but then they go, how do you know you don’t like it if you don’t try it? Maybe you will. Maybe it’s what you’ve been looking for, what you’ve been waiting for all your life. Maybe it’s the thing. Maybe he’s the one. Maybe maybe maybe shut up, okay? Maybe try keeping your mouth shut for once? Maybe the first time you didn’t blurt out whatever stupid little thought came into your stupid little head? Maybe try that and see if you like it! Telling me what to do, always telling me what to do and what not to do. Over your dead body? Oh yeah? I’ll do what I want with my own skin.

No one should ever be allowed to tell you what to do, Corina said to herself, now shivering. I know you told me it was cold outside. I know you said I should wear something warmer. I heard you the first time. All you do is talk, telling me this and telling me that. When did I ever get a word in? When did you ever have to listen to me? I’ll tell you when. Never, that’s when. No, wait, it was the tenth of Never, how about that? I like that better. That’s what I’ll tell her. You should have listened when you had the chance. You should have opened your ears. What you kept failing to understand, what you kept failing, you kept failing, failing, falling, falling. One step forward, all I need to do is take one step, and I can do it even though I’m doing it for the first time. I shouldn’t have to but you made me. Look what you made me do. I’m feeling the fear but I’m doing it anyway. I’m going for it. I’ll try it, and see if you like it. Just one step. Look alive! That’s what you’d say. Step to it! Okay, then. How do you like these apples, huh? How do you like ‘em now, mom? I’m doing it for the first time, though it’s the last thing I’ll ever do. Over your dead body? No, mom, over mine.

Ether Books: Flash Fiction Competition is on again

The Ether Books Flash Fiction competition is on again. 7 stories in 7 days, with the topic announced each day at Midnight (London Time). Today is day two. I’ve posted two stories so far, which I’ll add here in separate posts. I enjoy this competition even though I’m not the least bit interested in winning and I don’t usually go for prompts or this kid of thing in general, but last year I found many interesting writers and enjoyed the whole deal, so here we go again

Cowboys and Apes

If I’m remembering my Planet of the Apes lore correctly, the original movies had Ape society modeled on a sort of European Medieval Feudalism, with a fairly strict class structure, including Jesuits and Knights along with scientists and foot soldiers. In the current reboot, specifically Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the Apes are basically Native Americans in a cheesy Western. They speak pidgin English, they ride bareback, they stampede elks over cliffs and fight grizzly bears mano a mano. They are your basic Comanche stereotype, even speaking their choppy English to each other (!) when not using actual sign language. They have more in common as well. They’re up against General Custer and his merry men under seige, who are loaded with a massive armory, know how to blow things up real good, can Indian-hate with the best of them, and feature at most one woman at a time whose only role is supportive helpmeet and all around wannabe perfect chick, down to her surgical skills when required (to save a male) as well as attempted nurturing of the autistic step-son. Top cowboy is your basic MacGyver version, able to leap tall buildings with a single roll of string and somehow roll out just enough cable wire to connect San Francisco to a defunct hydro-electric dam on Mount Tamalpais. With a staple gun and some boulder-shifting, he manages to make the lights go up in the city, the jukebox play, and save the day at they very last moment before all hell breaks loose and things turn to shit. This happens (spoilers!) because it turns out that the only bad injun is a sneaky, traitorous lying injun (whose followers are so ignorant and inept they willingly turn into vicious monsters en masse or peace-loving cave-dwellers just as en masse depending on which leader they decide to bow down before at any given moment, he naturally being the strongest with the biggest dick).

Indians, er Apes, can be lawyer-like too, finding a wonderful loophole in their only commandment (ape shall not kill ape) by conveniently reclassifying precisely who qualifies as “ape” whenever it suits them.

There must be a natural law of second-generation creativity, akin to entropy, wherein copies of all originals tend to devolve into crap if not outright farce.

Or is it a generational thing, where one person’s futurism becomes the next one’s nostalgia? A writer with genuine vision sees the franchise turned over by corporate overlords to a movie director raised on John Wayne and the Lone Ranger.

We’re worn out with dystopias now. The original Planet of the Apes came around at a time when dystopias were rather fresh and refreshing. Nuclear nightmare scenarios were just off the boat, pre-detente and all that. The thing hadn’t been done quite to death yet – that distant future after we ruined everything when we get another chance to fuck it all up again. What was nice about the original was that it was really okay that the Apes got a chance. We had ours, then they had theirs. See what good it does them!

The pretty people didn’t have to win all the time like they do these days.

And at least the old version had a female character of significance (Vera), even if it only had two women in it (the other being the literally dumb babe). This new one has only Keri Russell’s occasional appearance to heal the sick, console the strong, worry over the weak, and basically be everybody’s sexy background mom. It’s unfortunate and seriously there is no reason why many of the male roles could not have been female (human and ape alike), no reason at all. Can they not string wire? Can they not shoot guns? Can they not swing from trees? Can they not shimmy and shake? Movies have got to get to the point where people are people and it doesn’t fucking matter what gender they are, what they look like, what they wear, what they sound like, what their name is or their sexuality or the color of their hair or their skin or their eyes, because we can all be anything that any of us can be and it really should be obvious to everyone by now.

 

The Outlier #5: Jumpers

Outlier5_Jumpers_Cover2

Dillon Sharif was the world’s greatest data detective, but he had too many cases. He needed to apply the same analytics techniques he used for solving mysteries to manage his own workload issues. He was also going to need help. A lot of help. Part Freakonomics, part Doctor Who, part Sherlock Holmes, and one hundred percent absurd, The Outlier series continues with #5: Jumpers. Let it rain!

The Outlier #5: Jumpers

by Tom Lichtenberg

copyright 2014 by by Tom Lichtenberg

Commander Bethany Rush felt she had never really fulfilled her potential, never reached the greatness she had striven for all her life. As far back as she could remember, she’d been pushing herself, never pausing, never relenting, and yet she still could not see an end to it or now even where she was headed. As a child, she’d been slight and flexible but strong and determined, and excelled in the special gymnastics school her father had placed her in. Geremy Rush was a striver himself, but more of an achiever-by-proxy. His own pursuits had come dramatically to a halt the day his daughter was born, her mother lost to “complications” of childbirth. Until that hour he’d been an inventor, an explorer, a self-trained scientist, a dabbler in all things he’d happened to randomly come across. He continued in that line, but with a child in tow who became the focus of all his attentions and all his aspirations. Whenever she displayed the slightest interest in anything, he tried to learn and teach her everything there was to know about the subject, whether it was caterpillars turning into butterflies or the patterns in cloud formations or the intricacies of garbage collection. He was exhaustive and exhausting in his efforts to satiate her curiosity, talking and talking and talking, and more talking all the time.

For her part, the child was patient and indulgent with her father, if not always as fascinated as he imagined. She appreciated the fact that he had her interests at heart, but in time she mastered the art of not always letting her cards show. She began to evade his intellectual domineering by directing her own activities towards the physical, beginning with gymnastics. There she found her own space for the first time, a territory she could venture where he could not follow, and in the practice she also discovered a deeper layer of her own mind, a level of reflection and distance. She determined to live in that region as much as possible, and her body became the tool her mind required to build its nest down there. She won medals and tournaments from tumbling and the high bar and the parallel bar and the vault, and her father dutifully watched from the sidelines, cheering, and gladly drove her all over the state, wherever and whenever she needed to be. She never knew if he understood how she used these methods to escape his oppressive attentions, and she later regretted to some degree how she let that distance grow and grow until the day he too passed away and that space became an infinity that could never be bridged again.

By then she’d worn out so many roads and changed in so many ways. From the tiny bendable girl she’d been to the strong lithe young star of the track and swim teams in high school to the Air Force Academy’s top ranked pilot to the highly decorated veteran of several official and unofficial wars to the tenured professor of Engineering Aerodynamics at the International University of Advanced Technology, Bethany Rush never felt like she had fulfilled her potential. There was still something missing, and she had no idea what it could possibly be. Her body had long since ceased to be the fine machine it once was. The passing years plus genetics and carelessness had led it to a state of profound rotundity, a shape-shifting from which there was no turning back. She’d made her peace with that, living now only in the deep reflexive home of her mind, which probed and searched throughout all of the topics and ideas collected by the most extensive queries she could pose, and came up with nothing. The world was full of things, too many things, and every one she crossed off the list was one that might have turned out to be “the one” if only she’d given it a chance. Was art the link she was missing? Was it music? Medicine? Feeding the hungry? Architecture? Could she have been the one to find a cure for cancer if only, if only, if only. She tormented herself with doubt, with regret, with the fuzzy thinking of roads not taken, of roads not even imagined.

She kept the list with her, and kept it growing. Every time she came up with a new topic, she added it to the list, and she would sit in coffee shops and scroll through the pages and pages of notions that might be the key to the greatness she still longed for. One day she opened up her laptop and typed that one word, in all capital letters over and over again while her cappuccino grew cold and she began to feel a creeping desperation taking hold of her heart. GREATNESS … GREATNESS … GREATNESS. She sighed and shook her head, and found herself incapable of typing another letter. “Is this the end of it?” she wondered, “the end of my quest, the end of the line?”

It’s over-rated if you ask me,” said a man sitting at the next table.

Excuse me?” she turned to face him and formed an immediate impression. He was younger than her, perhaps by a few years, and dressed absurdly in a green flannel shirt, black dress suit pants, some kind of paisley red bandanna poorly tied around his neck, black leather slippers and white socks. He had dark skin, a thin mustache like Errol Flynn, the kind that went out of fashion in the 1940′s, and slicked back light brown hair. She had been asexual all her life so it didn’t even occur to her to consider if he was “attractive” or not. Her first thought was that he looked like an idiot.

Greatness,” he said. “I noticed you typing it there. It’s over-rated. Meaningless, really.”

Ha,” was all she could think of to retort. What was this guy talking about? Everybody knows what greatness means. It means being the best, standing out, getting the recognition you deserve for the excellence you’ve achieved through all your hard work, talent and exertion.

It’s like history,” he continued, “I mean the way history is taught, by the winners, you know. History books never tell you what really happened, they only tell you how things turned out from the point of view of someone who wanted to tell about it. Same thing with greatness. There’s nothing innate about it, nothing true, nothing real.”

That sounds like something that somebody who’s never done anything would say,” she said. He laughed.

But you’ve done things,” he said. “Fine things,” he added.

What do you know about it?” she said, turning away. This was not turning into a conversation she wanted to have. The man reminded her of her father. He was probably a dilettante, an opinion generating machine, a bloviater. She believed in doing, not talking. She would bet that all this guy ever did was get up in the morning and make lousy decisions about what to wear.

You’d be surprised,” he said.

I don’t like surprises,” she muttered, but looking back at her laptop and the word she’d scribbled over and over again made her feel uneasy, so she closed the lid and made tentative movements to put her things away as if she was going to get up and leave.

Twenty two thousand feet,” the man said. “What do you know about twenty two thousand feet?”

Short of cruising altitude for commercial aircraft,” she said, still not looking over at him, “but potentially ideal for targeting systems, depending on weather conditions and terrain, of course.”

How about for jumpers?” he asked.

Too high,” she said, “or too low.”

Exactly,” he said. “I’m only going to ask you one time, Commander. I’ve got these coordinates and from my calculations I see they’re at that altitude. I need someone to get me there and wait, but I don’t know if it can be done.”

What?”

I have the coordinates. Latitude, longitude, altitude, but it’s only math. I can show you on the map.”

Just tell me,” she said. “I don’t need a map,” but after he told her she opened her laptop again and double-checked her reasoning.

Unlikely,” she told him. “There will be nothing there.”

Maybe, maybe not,” he smiled, and Bethany registered a second first impression. There was more to this man than she’d thought. He might not have the world’s finest wardrobe sensibilities, but he definitely had something, and it was what she was missing, what she’d always been missing, what she always would be missing, and yet what could never not be missing. He possessed the unknown, and as she was soon to find out, he had it in bulk.

Dillon Sharif had all of it, in fact, if you could imagine being in possession of the unknown. The unknown is not nothing, nor is it immeasurable. There are equations in the field of statistics that can actually quantify it, at least in theory. For example if you take all of the known, perform the dot product of that set with itself, multiply to the power of its value, and then take one over its inverse log root, you will arrive at a reasonable approximation. Simple, really. Trivial. In plain English, you could say that whatever is, its inverse isn’t, and vice versa of course. If you define “whatever is” as its available information, then this is what Dillon materially possessed. Naturally, it follows that he also immaterially possessed its negation.

His grandparents were Wilkins Sharif, the former Turkish-Egyptian prince, and his equally mad wife, the former Japanese-Maori punk rock duchess Kintara Soh. Together they had embarked on the improbable quest of total control over all the world’s data, beginning in the unlikeliest of places, a rain forest preserve on Madagascar, before branching out to Sri Lanka, then India, then China, Singapore and eventually the world. How they performed this achievement is one for the history books, books that would require their permission and cooperation to write, as everyone and everyone now required their permission and cooperation to access their own or any data whatsoever.

Their company, the AllDat Corporation, was born out of a world which had come to trust no one. Whether it was official government spying, or the infrastructure of total global surveillance, or social networks that knew everything about everyone, or telephone conglomerates that tracked and stored every person’s movements and utterances, it had all gone too far. Not only was there no privacy, there was no security of any sort. Credit cards had to be replaced as soon as they were issued. Deeds would come back to haunt people nearly instantaneously. Your computer and your cell phone and your streetlight and your refrigerator and your thermostat and your light bulbs and your watch and even your shoes were all connected all the time and reporting all the time about every little motion or condition detectable by humans or not. There was nowhere to run, nowhere to hide, nowhere even to not run and not hide. The people of the world struggled with the new situation of perpetual openness and ultimately refused to accept it. They demanded change, and when people demand change, two things generally happen; order and chaos, usually chaos first, followed by the other.

Wilkins Sharif had been thinking about the problem for years. As a corporate attorney he was well acquainted with the issues of liability and deniability. Anyone with access to anything could be held accountable for anything done with the stuff they had access to. The world was already litigious to the extreme, and it was only going to get worse. He figured there had to be a way out, a loophole, a legal nuance that could protect his clients. What it boiled down to was this: they had to both have and have not. It was his wife, also a lawyer, who hit upon the solution almost by accident. Oddly enough, it occurred to her one morning while she was sitting on the balcony at the crack of dawn, woken by the racket caused by the garbage trucks. Every Tuesday morning an army of those noisy machines descended on their neighborhood, each truck manned by only one person and armed with forklifts that would reach out and grab the garbage cans lining the streets, lifting them up and dumping their contents into the belly of the beast and then setting them down again. Why there were so many trucks remained a mystery to Kintara, but what happened to the garbage did not.

She ran down to her car and followed one of the trucks, tailing it patiently as it stopped and started, completed its run and made its way to the landfill and recycling center, where the different compartments housing the garbage were unloaded for further processing. She sat in her car and watched as the bits and clumps of trash were sorted and distributed, then re-sorted and re-distributed, until ultimately they were so scattered that the original set of trash from one person’s house could never, ever be re-collected. She raced home to tell her husband of her grand discovery.

Of course,” he said. “It’s garbage. Why would you ever want to put it back together again?”

But what if you did?” she asked, prodding him. Wilkins rocked back in his chair and puffed on his fat cigar. Eventually he began to understand what she was saying.

You would have to know somehow,” he said, “you’d have to tag each piece.”

Not just each piece,” she said.

Each piece of each piece!” he shouted, rising up from his chair and rushing to turn on his computer. They were not just lawyers, but also programmers, and he understood exactly what Kintara was on to. Computer programs create what they call “objects”, constructs which are merely convenient collections of information, of data, and they use these objects only as long as they need to. Once they are no longer in use, the objects become available for a process known as “garbage collection”. The system marks an object for collection, the object gets slated for destruction, and at some scheduled time its pieces will get scattered and turned into meaningless nothingness, opening up “space” in the computer’s memory which can be used for other information. Theoretically, Wilkins realized, a parallel garbage collection system could be engineered with the capability of recovering and reconstituting any given object.

AllDat Corporation would become the world’s data garbage man. A business would direct all of its data to AllDat. AllDat would process the data, shredding it to pieces which only AllDat could put back together again. It was Humpty Dumpty realized, a miracle of sorts, and one of the major selling points was that it would take everyone off the hook, everyone except for AllDat. Businesses could not be held liable for the data they had access to, because they no longer had direct access to any of the data. Anything they wanted they would have to ask AllDat for. One after another, businesses, and then governments, and then finally the entire world signed up, not least because the cost was nearly negligible. AllDat dealt in such volume that they could afford to charge almost nothing for their services, whether it was “storage” or “retrieval”. It was all a package deal for less than pennies per zetabyte.

Wilkins wrote the program and together he and his wife built the business from nothing. Then they sat back and let it run. Garbage in, garbage out, they liked to say. What their customers did with the data they purchased was none of AllDat’s concern. They imposed no moral judgments, had no ethical qualms, and allowed no legalese to get between the world of people and their information, as long as the queries followed the documented and rather strict guidelines. Of course, most of the public didn’t quite comprehend those constraints, and those who did were powerless to change them. To the people of the world, AllDat was a global security blanket. They became the trusted guardians, the caretakers , the order that followed the chaos of way way too much information.

Their adopted grandson was the only other person in the world who was allowed to drive outside the lines, the only other one who literally had access to all of the world’s data all the time. He could write his own database queries and retrieve any pieces of anything at any time. Dillon was raised in a sort of data playground. From his earliest days he built data sets the way normal children built Legos. He took to the higher maths to such an extent that by the age of ten he’d done with differential equations and moved on to number theories so esoteric their club memberships numbered in the single digits. His methods of abstract reasoning made landfills look like perfect grids. He was long past numbers now. The math had sunk so deep into his brain it was all second nature. He didn’t need calculus to know how to determine nearest neighbors of any huge data set. He didn’t need vectors or n-dimensional reductive theories to figure out the least significant hash algorithm required to associate any filter with its desired output. All he needed was a handful of clues, a random collection of facts insignificant in and of themselves but related through the matrix of what he liked to call the ether, which to other people would appear to resemble nothing so much as sheer nonsense.

It was through the madness of his method that he first came to notoriety, when he published a video describing the absurd relationships required to correctly predict winning lottery numbers every time. This video, viewed by hundreds of millions within a few weeks, successfully demolished the entire lottery industry on the planet. Tens of millions won and won every time, but their winnings were scant, having to be divided up among them all, so it soon became pointless to even bother. Far from being vilified for this perfidy, however, Dillon started to become a sort of legend, trumpeted by the media as the world’s greatest big data detective. He was reclusive by nature, and hard to track down, but soon he became the recipient of all sorts of requests to solve seemingly unsolvable mysteries. Thousands poured in and at first he didn’t know what to do with them. Most were not worth his time, and many were straight out of the paranormal TV shows so popular at the time which ravenously cannibalized ramblings straight out of Charles Fort’s “The Book of the Damned”. Some cases, however, he did find intriguing, but he realized that he was going to need some help. For one thing, he was going to have to find a way to handle the volume. That was his top priority. For another, he hated driving and lacked a practical sense of direction. What I need now, he told himself, is a trusty assistant.

He made a list of all the talents he required for that role. Clearly the first thing was transportation and logistics, since he was going to need to travel to places in order to investigate with boots on the ground. The driver would ideally also be a pilot, since the cases could arise from anywhere. He was going to need someone loyal, intensely loyal in fact, someone as secretive and protective as himself. He was going to need someone strong, someone brave, even fearless and especially someone in need of something undefinable, someone who could handle ambiguity and never back down from any challenge. He thought about running an ad, but decided against it. Instead, he did some research. Plugging his query into the AllDat archives he came up with many names at first, but as he applied more and more filtering it became clear to him there could be only one. Bethany Rush, the woman he called the Commander for no other reason than it merely occurred to him to do so.

And you need to go there why?” she asked him that morning in the coffee shop.

Money is no concern,” he replied to a different question. “I’ll pay you a lot. Really a lot. You’ll have an unlimited budget for whatever we need, and we’re going to need several things to begin with. A fleet of cars, some planes, probably some other vehicles, I don’t know. I’ll need you nearby, so I bought a condo for you in the Towers, on the floor above mine. We’ll leave as soon as possible, Thursday morning at the latest. I’ll tell you why on the way. Oh, and my name is Dillon Sharif.”

You?” Bethany said. “You are Dillon Sharif?” She had heard of him, of course. Everybody had, and she thought she’d seen a photo, so why hadn’t she recognized him at once?

It’s that stupid outfit,” she blurted out.

I dress for the occasion,” he smiled. “In this case, the occasion was to get your attention. Come on, let’s go.”

He got up and waited for her to pack up her stuff and follow alone. He walked quickly and she, much shorter than him, had to work to keep up by his side. She made some quick calculations.

We’ll need something like a fighter jet,” she told him.

We can get that,” he said.

And clearance from several governments.”

Consider it cleared,” he said.

And equipment,” she said, “uniforms, parachutes …”

Parachutes?” he stopped her. “I don’t think so.”

You said something about jumping,” she said, “so I assumed …”

Oh, we won’t be jumping,” he said. “That was about the lobsters.”

Lobsters?”

The lobster rain, of course,” he told her. “I’ll need to do some measurements from the spot.”

At twenty two thousand feet above the plains of Patagonia?”

To begin with, yes,” he said, and that was how it began.

Bethany had a lot to do. Dillon wanted to leave no later than in two days time, though he wouldn’t provide any explanation for that. It didn’t matter. Bethany – or the Commander as she would soon even come to think of herself – had her marching orders and that was all she required. He didn’t tell her how to do her job, only where and when he needed to be, and anything else that might be needed. It was up to her to organize and plan and make sure it all happened. She found the plane. She procured the clearances. She made every arrangement and in the meantime inspected her new living quarters, the best part of which was an underground private garage equipped with every technology needed to support all available types of then-current fuel alternatives, from electric charging stations to gas pumps to algae tanks to fuel cell generators, even experimental fission chambers. She had received permission to buy any and all vehicles she might possibly want to use. She had arrived in chauffeur heaven.

When the Commander notified her boss that everything was in order, she selected an unpretentious beige gas-powered minivan for the trip to the airport. There they boarded a decommissioned F-22 fighter which to her felt like old times. Dillon was gratified to notice that Bethany performed precisely as he’d expected, seamlessly integrating herself into his working life as if it were pre-destined from all time. She left him in peace while navigating the journey south towards the pole. In the meantime he fussed over a pile of papers he’d laboriously printed out from the stack of messages he’d been receiving since the day the lottery video went viral. Of all the cases that had come pouring in he had selected precisely none to actually work on. Or rather, he was sifting through them all in order to find an intersection of as many as possible.

He knew the probabilities were high that a number of them had to be connected. The fundamentals of page rank theory guaranteed it. There were only so many people in the world. There were only so many occurrences of things, only so many of which would be deemed unusual by a subset of people, the very subset who would go around “deeming” things “unusual” in the first place. Among that subset were bound to be certain types, types who would notice the same general types of events. He considered these people to be his “constituency”. They were the ones who would become his most likely clients in the future, so he thought it a good idea to make a study of them and their tendencies. There were those who noticed irregularities, deviations from the norm, from every norm. These were the people who found it odd that a man who had breakfast at six in the morning every day, one day had breakfast at seven. What could be the reason? Then there were people who noticed the inverse, the norms, and puzzled over the obvious. They would wonder why certain hair styles became prevalent, why people spoke in dialects, why gentlemen preferred blonds.

There were the political types, the cultural types, the bird-watching types, whole conglomerations of people who asked the stupidest questions about the least interesting things, and it was on this latter group that Dillon decided to focus his attention. In order to narrow down the field he had to start somewhere. It was easy to pick this type out once he had it all down on paper in front of him. He scanned for occurrences of word patterns, using a mental calculus of Jaccard distances and base pair sequence algorithms to spot the more ridiculous sets. It was these he set aside, and once he’d sifted the stack down to forty five pages out of the original six hundred and seven (a potential reduction in the workload of only seven percent but still a beginning), he shuffled through them randomly, glancing here and there, seeking and picking out the word that bound them all together. The word was “jump” and it occurred in several different contexts.

Why did suicidal jumpers favor the Golden Gate Bridge among all bridges? Was it true the per capita incidence was statistically higher for that bridge than any other?

Why had there been a notable increase in the rate of failed parachute openings during the previous spring in North America?

Why was there always a dance craze centered around the word or concept of “jump” every thirteen to fifteen years in Central Europe and/or the Mediterranean region?

Why had the average leaping distance of South African Bone Frogs decreased more than forty percent in the past decade?

Why was it raining lobsters on the plains of Patagonia?

Dillon was certain there was a common link in all these queries, and the several others that either repeated the same questions or were slight variations on the same themes, such other bridges, other frogs, or the skin colors of certain jump rope champions. Were these people feeling especially nervous these days? Were they excited? Were they as a class comparable to the legendary canary? Why indeed was it raining lobsters in the plains of Patagonia? There are typically no such creatures within a thousand miles of the place. Of course there had long been tales of amphibian storms with explanations that had satisfied the lesser scientific minds of several generations. What made this case especially interesting was the math. If his calculations were correct, the lobsters were popping out of thin air at an exact altitude of twenty two thousand feet, and their distribution on the plains indicated their origin from a specific central location.

We’ll be arriving in a few minutes,” the Commander announced over the loudspeaker.

Dillon gazed out the window. It was early afternoon and there was not a cloud in the sky. Far below them the pampas spread in every direction, featureless, blank and desolate. Off to the west a distant mountain range rose, and he knew from the maps that the ocean was somewhere to the east, but far away and out of sight.

Instructions, sir?” Bethany asked.

Can we circle that spot?” Dillon asked. “Is that possible?”

Of course,” she replied. “How close do you need to be?”

Oh, anything within a half a mile, I think,” he said. “I don’t quite know for sure.”

Are you looking for anything in particular?” she asked.

You mean besides lobsters?”

Yes.”

No, just lobsters.”

The crustaceans had fallen a week earlier, and also a week before that, and exactly one week before that as well. Whether the pattern would end at three Thursdays in a row, or whether another Thursday would bring another incidence remained to be seen. The Commander’s timing was excellent, at least. It was nearly three o’clock, the very hour of the recent lobster rains. Dillon was patient, and made Bethany circle the area for another two hours, but they had no luck. No creatures of any sort emerged from the clear blue sky, and Dillon had to admit to himself that his one lone witness, who’d written from a mental hospital in Rosario, might not have been the most reliable informant. Nevertheless, he worked on the equation he’d been saving for this exact location, and when he was satisfied with the results, he gave further instructions to the Commander. They flew on to Buenos Aires where she arranged a comfortable accommodation for the night. Bethany slept soundly. Oddly, she felt like she had actually achieved something, although as far as she knew their mission had been a failure in every respect.

When met for breakfast in the morning, she expected further instructions, but instead she found Dillon strangely silent as he mulled over his steak and eggs. After she could contain it no longer, she decided to ask the one question that had occupying her mind ever since she’d met him.

What did you mean when you said that greatness is meaningless?”

Greatness can never be achieved,” he said. “It can only be given, bestowed like a title or a trophy or a gift. It is provided by others. One cannot attain it for oneself. You can do the most remarkable things but if it goes unrecognized it can never be great. Greatness is a seal of approval, a stamp, a mark. It can be applied to anything by anyone, and so it has no intrinsic meaning. Do you see that thing there, outside the window?” he pointed.

The tree?”

Right. The tree. The word “tree” has a meaning. There it is. You know it, I know it, we agree upon it. Is there anything called “great” that you and I would indisputably agree on as surely as we agree on the meaning of tree?”

But people can be the best at something. Isn’t that greatness?”

That’s just being the best at something. Haven’t you been the best at something many times? You know what that is like.”

It’s never good enough,” she muttered.

No,” he said. “You’re wrong. It’s always good enough, more than good enough. You just never gave yourself permission to be satisfied, to be done with it, to move on. But you can always be the best at everything you do as long as what you do is something that no one else can do.”

That sounds like you.” she said.

No,” he replied, “I’m just getting started, but I think I have figured out our little case at hand, though I don’t want to “jump” to conclusions.” He laughed and got up from the table.

Barrancabermeja,” he said. “and then home.”

Barrancabermeja? Colombia?”

Just for a couple of hours, and then home,” he said.

The Commander had the plane refueled and ready to go as quickly as she could, then they flew off to that small city in the Andean mountains. She followed him as he walked to the edge of the small airport’s grounds, where he peered over the edge of what seemed an improbable cliff at the end of the service road. The road had simply collapsed, and a hundred feet below they could see the remnants of abandoned cars and trucks, as well as bits of steel and concrete that formerly had been parts of sheds and other out buildings. On the other side of the narrow gorge, a forested mountain rose up high. Dillon pulled out his phone and recorded a brief video of the depths.

When did this happen?” Bethany asked.

A month ago,” he said, taking a step back. He scanned the long line of the jagged cliff which extended for a half a mile in either direction.

It was just an ordinary landslide,” he said. “No one saw or even heard it happening. When the workers came in the morning, they found it just like this.”

What do you think it means? Is it related to the jumpers?”

You never know.”

There’s nothing to worry about,” he remarked as they climbed back into the plane and they made ready to return to San Francisco, but he wasn’t referring to the puzzled expression on the Commander’s face. His comment was meant for that subset of worriers whose preoccupations had drawn his attention, the jumpers. He’d formed a clear diagnosis, one he felt he should have recognized immediately. Every one of the forty five people whose queries he had collected together was afflicted with the same condition, a chromosomal imbalance that led to an erratic activity in the amygdala on a fairly predictable schedule. When triggered, these people would become aware, on a subconscious level, of certain kinds of apparent irregularities in the normal course of events; statistical anomalies, meaningless deviations, insignificant differences. The condition could easily be cured with baby aspirin, cranberry juice, Hatha Yoga and/ Panamanian folk music in regular doses. As it turned out, more than two hundred thousand people around the globe were subject to the same previously undetected and undiagnosed affliction, thereafter known as PLS, or Patagonian Lobster Syndrome.

The proof was in the inbox. Within weeks the number of queries he received was indeed reduced by approximately seven percent. The volume was still overwhelming, though. He was going to have to find another way of dealing with it if he was truly going to pursue this vocation.

If we’d known you wanted to be a detective,” his grandmother chided him during their next weekly conference call, “We would have made you watch more television.”

I don’t know why you’re bothering, really,” his grandfather said, “Sounds like a bunch of cranks.”

There’s bound to be some of interest,” Kintara countered. “One in a million, maybe, but still, that one.”

That million,” Wilkins grumbled. “Who’s going to sort through ‘em all.”

Yeah,” Dillon sighed, “that’s the biggest problem. And the false alarms. And the sheer fictions. What I don’t understand is how the wildest things go un-noticed. Like that landslide in Colombia I told you about, right?”

What about it?”

Way down at the bottom. I couldn’t be sure at first. It was hard to see, so I zoomed in on the footage. Sure enough, there they were. Brown as the mud, and slow as tar, but there they were.”

There what were?” asked Kintara after a long moment when her grandson stopped his narrative.

Lobsters,” he said. “Far from home and way off course.”

Now there’s a genuine outlier,” Wilkins chuckled.

There’s a needle in every haystack,” Dillon said.

One in a million,” his grandmother added. “but one in every million.”

And that’s why I’m doing it,” he said. “For the ones.”