Thursday, February 19, 2015

"The Magic 8-Ball"- Short Story

As rejected by Analog!

When a former private military contractor, now injured in a war with China and left on the streets with no pension, discovers a Magic 8-ball toy in the trash, he takes it with him on a whim.  But what does this little lump of plastic really know about his uncertain future?

Quite possibly, everything.

The Magic 8 Ball 
by Rose LaCroix 

"Will I get a ride today?"

Connor Blocker shook the shiny black grapefruit-sized orb in his hands, the toilet bowl-blue water inside swishing softly as he held it to his ear. He turned it upside down and gazed into the tiny round window in its base.

NOT LIKELY 

He sighed. If he didn't get out of Little Rock soon, he was going to beat someone down. Too often he heard them yell "get a job!" He was sick of it. They didn't know who he was or what he'd been through. He had vowed that the next person to yell "get a job!" was going to get the worst beating he could dish out.

Three years earlier, he had a job. He had a wife and a two-year-old daughter. He had a house, a car, and a collection of vintage vinyl. He had two legs.

Now, he had an ages-old backpack with a broken strap, an Omnax that was several versions obsolete with no minutes left on it, an ancient two-LP set of Leonard Bernstein conducting Berlioz's Grande Messe des Morts, an old road atlas, one leg, and this magic 8-ball he'd found in the trash in Memphis on his way westward.

He sighed. The records would have to go. He might actually get enough to top up the minutes on his Omnax if he was lucky, though he thought he'd set his sights higher for once.

He shook the 8-ball again.

"Will I get to Oregon if I try to sell my record?"

SIGNS POINT TO YES 

Now there was a surprise. "Alright, you little bastard, let's see how accurate you really are. You'd better start telling me the truth if you want to come with me."

Connor put the 8-ball back into his back pack and got up unsteadily, using the bag to counterbalance as he swung his crutch under him. The rusty safety pin holding the empty leg of his jeans up came loose but he quickly fixed it it.

He hobbled from his temporary home, under one of the maze of overpasses where I-30 and I-630 meet, just south of the heart of the downtown area. There had to be a vintage music store or at least an antique store that would give him a fair price for this record.

A few hours of searching turned up no store willing to take it. There were no music stores left, since no one in Little Rock collected albums any more. If he could hold onto the album until he got to Portland...

No. He had to try to sell it now. Without a few thousand dollars for a Quantarot-E to give him advice, this magic 8-ball was the best thing he had to see him through an uncertain future and it had spoken.

He walked into a tiny antique store on a hilly stretch of Kavanaugh Boulevard. Inside were rows upon rows of shelves, booths, and display cases.

"I'm just saying, for what it's worth, this war with China will be good for the economy and for the nation in the long run," the Omnax dock behind the counter boomed in the voice of Fritz Neville, America's national voice du jour. "Look at what it's done for us so far. Poverty's down, unemployment's down, and we're seeing a revival of American manhood. That's what it is, manhood is back, people. You need men to go to war, real men, and our country's rising to the challenge. We're not giving quarter to these queer, effeminate, peacenik types any more. It's total war or nothing, and I think that's when America is at Her greatest. We're a warrior nation, we always have been and we always will be, and it's time we embraced that. We're happy to go to war because that's where we belong. And if you don't agree, well, go move to France with all the other fairies, comrade. That's all I've got to say."

Connor felt sick. The room started spinning. The rage within him began to rise. He wanted to scream, to throw the Omnax dock in the trash and split the head of the smiling septuagenarian behind the counter. How could anyone still buy this garbage? What kind of thick, stupid person could see their friends and family killed or wounded in fifteen years of war, the economy wrecked, and the threat of a nuclear war looming and think that this was still a good idea? How could he forgive anyone who thought the war he lost a leg fighting, only to get screwed out of his pension and everything else good in his life by the cheapskate defense contractor he worked for, was still a good idea?

The only war he had any interest in now was the war of Northwestern independence. If he was going to die like a dog, he may as well do it for something worthwhile.

"Can I help you?" the old man said in a soft voice tinged by a gentle southern accent, suddenly breaking the tension long enough for Connor to get a grip.

"Yeah, I was wondering if you'd be interested in buying this LP set," he said, taking out the records. The old man examined the album, shaking his head.

"Well, see, I can't give you much. I don't know nothing about vinyl, I don't got a turn table to see if it plays right, and you see this up here?" he pointed to a small wear spot on the upper corner of the outer sleeve. "That's gonna take some value off. I can give you five bucks for it, maybe."

"Only five?" Connor asked.

"Well now, I got to make a profit," the old man said. "And I don't reckon I can get more than 'bout ten for this, and that's for someone who just wants something pretty to put on their wall. Ain't no one listens to Vinyl no more."

"I see," said Connor. "Thank you." He left the store, searching desperately for some place, any place, that would take the record.

He had walked the length of Kavanaugh all the way to Cantrell now. Exhausted, he found a bench to sit on.

On the bench was an ad for Sarum Security Solutions, his old employer. He frowned. The ad showed an armored personnel carrier emblazoned with the company's Triple-S logo, rolling into an all-too-clean Chinese village, being greeted by throngs of grateful villagers.  "Be part of the solution!" it said.

Connor sat down, trying not to think about the ad. He took the 8-ball out of his bag and shook it.

"Well, now what?" he asked, forgetting momentarily to frame his question as a yes-or-no proposition.

WHEN THE HEAT IS ON THINK PEACE 

"Wait a moment..." he said. "What do you mean 'think peace?' I want revenge!" He shook the ball again.

BEFORE YOU SEEK REVENGE DIG TWO GRAVES 

Did this little lump of plastic just quote Confucius? How many quotes were in this one? This wasn't a standard, twenty-response model like he'd had as a kid, those never gave messages like this.

"What if I don't care if I get killed?" he said, shaking the ball more vigorously now.

TRUST ME STAY ALIVE IT WILL BE WORTH IT 

"I've lost my mind," Connor said quietly. "I'm arguing with a piece of plastic and, damn me, it's winning. But I'll give you one last chance. I'll 'think peace' when the heat is on. But if that doesn't work, I'm going out in a blaze of glory."

No sooner had he put the 8-ball away when a City of Little Rock police cruiser pulled up to the bench, its lights flashing. A police officer in a ballistic helmet, Aviator glasses, and a thick armored vest got out.

"Hi there," the officer said. "How's it going today?"

"Not too bad," Connor said.

"Hey, listen, I've got a call that there's someone like you trying to sell a rare antique record. Would you mind telling me what's going on?" the officer said.

"It's all I got left," Connor replied.

"Where'd you get it? I can't imagine a guy like you would just carry something like that around, now, would you?" the officer said.

"I've had it for years," Connor said.

"Then why are you trying to sell it?" the officer said, leaning in slightly more.

"I need money," Connor said.

"Hitchin' cross country?" the officer asked.

"Just looking for a place to start over," Connor said with a nod.

"Where?" the officer pressed in.

"Wherever," Connor said.

"I think you should come with me," the officer said, grabbing and cuffing him with plastic zipties before he could object. He was thrown into the back of the cruiser roughly, his back pack and crutch placed in the trunk.

What now? thought Connor.

The day just kept getting worse.

* * * 

Connor sat under a bright heat lamp, cuffed hand and foot to a cold, hard metal chair.

"So, would you mind telling me what this is all about?" asked the detective, dumping the contents of Connor's bag onto the table between them. "Why don't we start with this?"

He picked up a forty-year-old old road atlas. "Now, why would you be carrying a map around? That's what your Omnax Mapplication is for."

"My Omnax is out of minutes," Connor said. "And I can't afford the Mapplication software."

"Well then, let's take a look at what you've been looking at," the detective said, placing the atlas on its spine and allowing it to fall open where it had been opened most often. To Connor's horror, it fell open to the page showing the Western states, from Wyoming to Oregon.

"Well now... headed to Oregon, Mr. Blocker?" the detective said.

"Don't I have a right to go where I want?" Connor said.

"Well, what do you plan to do out there in Oregon?" the detective asked.

"I just want to start a new life," Connor said bitterly. "Is that a crime now?"

"Lots of poor folks like you want to start a new life out there in Oregon. But there's a war going on there too, and the enemy could use someone with your background. We know about your stint with Triple S," the detective said. "Look, it's okay to be bitter about losing your leg, but if you're going to commit treason, we can't let you go."

"I'm done with war, I did my part. I just want peace," Connor said.

"Why don't we see what the Quantarot-E says about that?" the detective said coldly. He left the room, leaving Connor alone.

What now? he thought to himself. His eyes scanned the meager possessions scattered before him on the table.

That's when he remembered.

WHEN THE HEAT IS ON THINK PEACE 

The heat was definitely on. By using a random "coin toss" number generator running eight billion random flips per second, and the effective will of the observer on the object in question, the Quantarot-E could answer any question with better than 70% accuracy. It was built on research done in the 2000s at Princeton, with their "Electrogaiagrams" that saw a spike in non-random activity when human consciousness was piqued. The technology had taken a long time to develop into a useful form, paired with an AI that could understand questions and formulate intelligible answers, but it had become a formidable way to divine the truth.

If he didn't start thinking peace now, Connor would be in for a world of hurt.

Connor began digging deep into his childhood, his innocence.

Cartoons... no, not cartoons, especially not Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd! The Quantarot-E didn't know the difference between "kill the wabbit" and "kill the soldier."

What did he know about peace? A bunch of silly hippie stereotypes? That's all anyone knew about peace any more, and he was no exception.

Well, silly stereotypes it is then, he thought. Love. Peace. Singing hippies. VW vans. Love. Peace. Rolling a joint. Free love. Woodstock. All you need is love.

"All you need is love," he sang softly to himself, "All you need is love. All you need is love, love, love is all you need..."

And strangely, the more he thought about it, the more real it felt. He was a hippie, a flower child, displaced from the Summer of Love and just trying to get away from a bad break. He didn't need to fight any more, he was done with that.

The thought became more and more natural, and he felt his load lighten a little as he thought of how nice it would be for everyone to just get along for once. In came the detective, along with the officer who had brought him in.

"Alright, singin' time's over," the detective said. "You got a nice voice, you sing in church?"

"Nah, church is a drag. I just do my own thing," Connor said, leaning back rakishly. It seemed to strike a sour note with the two policemen.

"Alright, well, let's see just how much 'love' you've got in you," the detective said. "I see you got a magic 8-ball. That's cute. Here's mine, son."

The detective took out a matte black sphere, about the same size as the magic 8-ball, and twisted it slightly. The sphere came open at its middle, widening about an inch and exposing a maze of wires, circuits, and an array of blinking green LEDs.

"Alright," the detective said to the arresting officer. "Take a good look at this fella and let the ball do its work. Quantarot-E, is this man going to kill his fellow Americans?"

"Calculating," the Quantarot-E said in a smooth female voice. It hummed gently.

Connor didn't stop. He closed his eyes and pictured a big blue peace sign on a pink background, with cartoon daisies all around. He cleared everything else from his mind and made that his total and complete focus.

"Subject's intentions are peaceful," the Quantarot-E said.

"Am I free to go now?" Connor asked, tugging at the zip ties that held him to the chair as the detective closed the Quantarot unit and put it away.

"Yeah, gimme a minute," the detective said, reaching into his pocket and taking out a box cutter.

"Sorry for this," the detective said as he cut the tight plastic strips that held him in place. "There's a lot of troublemakers come through here on their way out West. Lots of good folks too though. Ain't never sure which is which."

"It's okay," Connor said. Why wasn't he more indignant about this? They had just tied him to a chair and interrogated him for half an hour for no good reason... Actually, they did have a reason. He was planning on joining an insurrection, after all.

Was...

Connor gathered up his possessions and silently left the building, the once alien new thought of a peaceful life in the beautiful Northwest now heavy on his mind.

Well, that's still a 50/50 from you, he thought to the magic 8-ball in his bag. I got away, but I didn't get enough money to get to Oregon. 

He was out the door and almost out of the parking lot when he heard someone running up behind him.

"Sir! Sir!" the voice said.

Connor turned. There was the detective he had just spoken to.

"Did I forget something?" asked Connor.

"Here's something you might need," the detective said, handing him a slip of paper.

He opened it. "A bus voucher?" Connor said, dropping his backpack in shock, the magic 8-ball rolling out and into a nearby patch of grass.

"Good for anywhere in the lower 48," the detective said. "Good luck, and God bless."

The detective went back inside, and Connor picked up his pack and the 8 ball, which had ended up with its flat side up. Inside the ball, he could clearly see the message:

NOW DO YOU TRUST ME?

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