by Sasha Cooke
Just before they got to the thruway Neil told the driver to pull over.
I thought you said…
No worries friend, right here’ll do me. Keep the change.
Half a block down he’d spotted what looked to be an alright bar. He walked briskly down and up the concrete stairs. His kind of place. Pool, no snooker of course, and some kind of table game with maybe five college kids crowded around it. He grabbed a draft and went to check it out. Right, Walter Mathau with the little girl. Table hockey or something. Hitting something around a rectangle at high speed. He grinned. The boys were playing ten dollars and in, winner stay on. He watched for three games, and pretty sure he had the hang of it, put down ten.
He was forty up when the phone finally rang.
Bar over near Mulholland….Yeah, well I’m in the middle of a game …..Wha’sis called boys?....Air hockey. Yeah, but Stace, there’s money on the line…..Yeah, that’s more but I’ll be done in a minute, call yah, right?
He pocketed one more ten and left the table. He knew they were staring- guy doesn’t even know the name of the game and he scores twice talking on the phone. Stiff cheese, boys.
With another draft he sat at the only empty table.
Stace, yeah I’m free, sorry about that.
I want to talk to you about a couple of million and you’ve got to finish playing air hockey?
Hey come on, you sound like my real girl- I thought that was just a fake out.
Look, Cav, this is serious stuff and I can’t stay on the phone all night, I’m supposed to play in this damn thing. Anyway, it sounds like you’ve pulled it off again, everyone’s convinced you can’t hold it.
Yeah, that’s almost as bad as letting that poofter smack me around. I mean, what if my pals find out about this?
Hey, that’s my husband. Anyway, pretty soon you’ll be back home with enough money to buy new friends.
I still don’t quite get how it works.
Look, Henry can’t handle pressure. A law suit is going to throw him way off balance. If he thinks he can get out of it by fobbing you off with that property he’s going to jump at it.
And you’re sure you’re the only one who knows what it’s worth?
I am one hundred percent the only person in L.A. who knows low-end real estate and the high tech business. These guys are going to need that property badly, they just don’t know it yet. They can’t expand any other way and you can’t test drones in the bathroom. We’re gonna make a killing.
Long as it’s we, eh?
Look- how can I cheat you- you’re going to be the one on the title- I’m the one should be worried.
So what’s next?
We’re already there, Cav. You know Reid. He wants everything pleasant. Now he knows there’s supposed to be a suit, he’ll be giving Henry all kinds of advice about how to smooth it over. He’ll be telling him now he’s in the big bucks he can’t afford to get associated with that kind of trouble. Plus, now Henry thinks he can take you he won’t be thinking you could be faking him. Hold and flick- eh?
How’d you get so down on this fella, anyway?
Don’t worry your Kiwi head about it. Just keep playing your part. Have fun with the kids tomorrow.
Stacy slipped the phone into her bag and looked through the window. The exhibition was almost over, but barely anyone was watching it. On the benches Henry was slumped over with Reid patting his shoulder. Paddle ball, pickleball whatever. Sheesh. Had to be harder than playing these clowns. She drummed her nails on the sill until she’d wiped the business face off and slipped on the party smile. Time to mingle.
Cavanaugh was back at the table. The fellas had looked a little suspicious but he’d bought a round and they were easing up. Could he lose the first game and cheer them up a bit more?
Thirty seconds in the puck glanced off his paddle and rattled in the goal. Not so different from lessons at the club. Guys think they can play even with a pro because they played number 5 on their college team before they gained twenty on the mid-section. Lose one every now and then and keep ‘em coming. Fool ‘em you can’t play, fool ‘em you can’t drink. Maybe he should have been a spy. Nah, that was against the rules. He let another slip in. The boys were practically cheering. Was this the way to go or should he try double or quits lefty? Could you even call this a competition?
Reid was calling her name on his bullhorn. Little boys, honestly. And there was Henry at her shoulder, practically slobbering. Evidently Reid hadn’t had a calming effect.
Your goddamn boyfriend- you know what he’s doing?
For the hundredth time, he’s not my boyfriend, but yeah, I know what you’re talking about. Don’t forget, Hank, you did attack him in front of witnesses.
Well what the hell am I supposed to do? I’m in business, I don’t need this crap.
Oh for gosh sakes, Hank. He’s just a squash pro. Why don’t you just give him that house those flippers stuck you with?
Oh yeah, like that’s how I’ll stay in business.
Well it’s better than a public lawsuit where you’ve got to claim I was cheating on you. And it’s a lot better than shelling out real money. I mean the guy almost drowned Hank. You could be on the hook for half a mill. A house you took in payment you can write off twice.
You really think so?
Sure Hank. Now I gotta go play.
Little boys. Could you even call this a competition?
by A.J. Kohlhepp
“Come on, Henry,” she said calmly, holding open the door of the court.
“I’m not sure about this,” stammered Henry as the sweat on his forehead threatened the absorptive properties of his throwback terry-cloth headband. (Had Jonathan Power or John McEnroe ever logged time as southern California paddle tennis players, they would have looked a lot like this.) “I think Reid just put us together to fuck with us.”
“All you have to do is get your serve in and stay out of the way,” she reassured him. “Do that and we’ll win.”
This racquet sport, like most racquet sports, came easily to Stacy. Too easily, you might say. In fact, it was boredom with the junior squash and tennis circuits that had propelled her toward the cross country team in high school. Even if she won the races, which she usually did, she was still chasing her own PRs, then the age group records, then the international standards, and so on.
You never really ran out of competition in the running world, she realized early on. And when things started to seem easy, you could always tackle a different distance. She was comfortable with marathons by now, and considering the jump to ultra- as her work and family obligations lessened a bit.
Back to the task at hand…. Henry was probably right about Reid’s intentions with his partnering and seeding strategies. Henry wasn’t bad with a racquet, actually, but the swagger that served him well in his real estate ventures had seemingly deserted him on this cloudless Angeleno afternoon.
“Who needs a paddle court in LA anyway,” blurted Henry.
“The same guy that peddles socially conscious growth portfolios to real estate tycoons and techies, I guess,” laughed Stacy, glancing in Reid’s direction. Intent on his clipboard, he missed her telling look and called out once more for Mr. and Mrs. Silverman to come down to the court.
“We’re already here, Reid,” she called out, striding purposefully to the backhand side and taking a few fluid swings along the way, with Henry fiddling with his matching wristbands in her wake.
Across the net, in deep conspiratorial enclave, stood a real power couple: a Hollywood producer and his fashionista wife. Apparently, Reid had played squash with him in college and their clubby camaraderie still translated to the West coast social milieu. Reid’s probably moving their money around too, she mused. Assuming they had any to move. People were so leveraged (and so phony) in this town that it was impossible to really know who was up and who was down.
The same ambiguity held true for her and Henry, as far as the outside world knew. Going solo would create some challenges in that regard, she calculated, as she pounded the pink orb off of the sandpaper-like board of the paddle court. Henry’s laissez faire attitude toward their marital finances – for somebody who chased money relentlessly he was curiously casual when in possession of it – had given her plenty of freedom with the checkbook. She drew a good salary from the start-up but the bonuses of the early, heady days in tech were a thing of the past. And Finn’s school was expensive. Tuition alone stood at $16,000, to say nothing of school uniforms, sports apparatus, electronic gewgaws, private music lessons, and all the other opportunities that parents in their milieu were expected to provide their offspring.
The producer and the fashionista were approaching the net, their inside arms linked at the elbow and outside hands waving their customized Wilson Surge racquets as they approached. (Orange and black – Princeton colors?) Henry, already there, waited petulantly for Stacy to join them. And so she did, jogging forward in her dusty Title 9 tights and North Face trail running shoes. (Her texted request for Henry to grab her bag out of the foyer on the way over had apparently arrived too late or been ignored completely. Since she had run up and over the ridge line – an easy but interesting ten miles -- to get to Reid’s in advance of the party’s official start time, she had had to put her trail running garb back on for paddle and post-game cocktails. She was thankful for the arid climate that had allowed her outfit to dry as she killed time with Reid in the tub.)
After the customary over-the-net greetings, and a fast and furious round of “You must know,” it was time to play.
The fashionista served first. Henry, playing on the forehand side to minimize his exposure, managed a reasonable return cross court, which the fashionista then blocked back in a soft, spinless arc. Stacy sprung toward the net, intercepting the ball with a vicious volley and imparting enough side spin to ensure that neither opponent would be able to manage an extraction off of the chicken wire. First point to the Silvermans.
On her turn to receive serve, Stacy ripped a wickedly sinking backhand toward the producer at net. He barely managed to get a paddle on it, thus avoiding extensive damage to his genitalia (and ego), but his attempt at a volley fell meekly into the net.
“So sorry,” said Stacy, feigning a surprised look to compound the uncertainty.
“No worries,” said the Hollywood man, who subsequently took a pronounced step away from the net, thus opening up all manner of angles for Stacy to exploit. The first game was easy after that.
Henry barely managed to hold serve, thanks to Stacy’s aggressive volleys, but the producer proved a worthier adversary than his partner. His booming, high-kicking serve had Henry and Stacy consistently retrieving off the back fencing, and the glamour couple was just strong enough at net to consolidate their advantage and claim the third game.
Which left Stacy serving at 2-1. Win this game and they would walk away with the mini-set; lose it and they would have to play a tie-breaker, with rotating serve, to anoint a victor. No way she was letting this thing go the distance, as much as she had going on off court….
She made quick work of the fourth (and final) game, varying pace, trajectory and spin enough to pick up a couple of service winners and set up simple volleys on the other points – Henry even managed to put away the final rally, which satisfaction Stacy didn’t begrudge him at all.
“Well played,” noted the producer as they shook hands over the net.
“Yes,” added the fashionista. “You must have played before!”
“I picked it up when I was a kid,” Stacy responded matter of factly.
“Fairfield County,” murmured Henry, as if merely naming that faraway region could convey all that anyone needed to know about his soon-to-be ex-wife. The power couple nodded knowingly, though what precisely they knew was anybody’s guess.
“Nice job,” offered Reid as they exited the court, extending a tanned fist for bumps from the victors.
“Nothing to it,” smiled Henry, uncertain about how to extend his own paw to consummate the gesture Reid had extended his way.
Stacy connected knuckle to knuckle in a deft punch as her left hand extended backward, in counterpoise, toward the cell phone zippered into the back pocket of her running top. It had vibrated repeatedly during their match, and she had a pretty good notion who had been trying to reach her.
by Sean Hanlon
Judge Jolene Menschette gripped her gavel as if it was the strap of a purse stuffed with gold doubloons. She was an older woman in salt-and-pepper helmet hair fitted with an earhole on the right. Though he could not see her ear, Reid could see her earhole and was mesmerized by the silver star earring it displayed. She called the court to order with a bang and nodded at Reid, perhaps because neither he nor she was all lawyered up.
The same could not be said for Reid's squash mates. Cavanaugh's counselor could have been a boxer in another life while Henry and Stacy were themselves represented by attorneys of the opposite sex. Reid being a something of a music man, their histrionics gave him the impression he was attending the performance of a lesser Debussy's tune: Prelude to the Afternoon of an Ugly Divorce. His marriage to Elena was in trouble too and so he retreated from this discontent to a courtroom fantasy offering a happier state of play: Henry's lawyer was a bird and Stacy's was a hound dog with big ears and a nose for news. Reid sang about them to himself:
Harriett Chariot Seagull
And Elliot Yelliot Beagle
Tried to make it legal,
But this was not allowed
They lay down in the heather
And built a nest of feather
That did the Bird Dogs proud.
Judge Jolene paged through the civil complaint filed by Cavanaugh, who was not just a squash pro but also the scion of a kauri dynasty and the guy who was putting the woodie to Henry's wife. The pain and suffering he had incurred in a fracas at Reid's house, a dwelling Elena had since abandoned for the comforts of her mother's home. The complaint alleged that Henry had shoved Cavanaugh into the hot tub. Reid had gotten soaked pulling his matey from the soup, and now wondered whether the kauri might someday proffer recompense. Unique to New Zealand, the kauri secretes a resin that artisans employed by the Cavanaughs shape into jewelry that looks like translucent gold. Reid wondered whether his matey might someday reward him with the gift of a kauri star like unto the silver star twinkling about Judge Jolene's salt-and-pepper helmet hair. This was the least Cavanaugh could do, given the drudgery of the case he was bringing before her court.
Stacy was expected to testify as to her marriage, and perhaps to flaws in her husband's character. Reid was expected to testify as to the hot tub and some chest thumping and heavy drinking that preceded the dousing of Cavanaugh. These machinations were putting the squeeze on Reid as he was not just the squash mate of all concerned but also the financial advisor of Henry and Stacy in these days of conjugal woe. Stacy had changed her investment strategy around about the time she was first suspected of being Cavanaugh's squeeze, cashing in her Amazon chips and diverting her dividends to instruments beyond Reid's purview. She sent Reid a text message asking that her husband not be informed of her market moves and asked him to delete the text, all of which hinted of his being drafted into an unsavory league.
Judge Jolene set a trial date and adjourned the court with a tap rather than a bang. Reid and Stacy were adjourning to a squash appointment with two of Cavanaugh's young proteges, going their separate ways to the same locale: she in Cavanaugh's car and he by foot with questions on his mind: Why did Stacy have a legal beagle at her side? Were the court case and the prospect of an ugly divorce really about something else? Henry owned land abutting the selfie drone start up where Stacy was employed. Maybe she and her lover were conniving to get that land from her husband at the lowest possible price. Or maybe not. Reid took a deep breath at a crosswalk where the don't walk, don't walk, don't walk sign looked to him more like don't talk, don't talk, don't talk to yourself, and if you must try not to move your lips. He tried not to move his lips but closed his eyes and checked his heartbeat as he let that deep breath slip slowly, slowly away. The crosswalk sign said walk and so Reid walked and talked his way to the squash emporium.
Waiting there for him were Elena's mother and niece, the one with some serious shopping to do and the other with a glittering grill of braces on her teeth and hair of flaming ginger bundled in a ponytail. Gandmother and child parted with a kiss, leaving Reid in charge of a junior player who answered to the name of Winifred but preferred to be known as Fred the Red when playing the game. She watched with interest as Reid worked on the slice and the dice and the splice. This was a practice drill of his own devising that had much to do with his reputation as perhaps the best finesse player in the L.A. area. He dribbled the ball this way and that with glancing strokes of his racket: the slice for topspin, the dice for backspin and the splice for some caddywampus english he only deployed against guys who caught Elena's eye.
Reid had been working this drill for nigh on twenty years, or almost as long as he had been a loser in love. He had struck out with Stacy in high school and now Elena preferred the company of Red’s grandmother while Stacy was falling for a guy whose family was making a mint in tree sap. What was a schmoo to do?
He greeted Stacy and her son. Their arrival was attended by the familiar phenomenon of Reid's heart first rising and then sinking at the sight of his high school crush, though this time this tribulation was alleviated by another phenomenon: floating above Finn like a cloud near to bursting with artificial intelligence was the selfie drone that had become Stacy's other pride and joy. She informed Fred the Red that the shape and engineering of the GAL 9000 owed much to the beanie propeller hat designed in 1947 by Ray Faraday Nelson of Cadillac, Michigan. The name of the drone paid homage to the HAL 9000, a renegade computer featured in her favorite film: 2001 A Space Odyssey.
"I was born in 2006," Fred the Red said. Stacy responded with the 9000 calling card: "Open the pod bay door, GAL."
The selfie drone did not comply and so Reid did the honors in its stead, standing as straight and still as a footman as Stacy, the juniors and the GAL 9000 filed into a court not at all like the court where Judge Jolene held sway.
The GAL 9000 had audio and video capabilities and so sounded out pop tunes while taking in the sights and sounds of two squash seniors exposing two squash juniors to the joys and sorrows of a mixed doubles match. Stacy's son had jet-black hair in a springy flattop as tidy as a manicured lawn but a few inches lower than the top of the flaming mop of Elena's niece. The seniors pretended not to notice that Finn resented the bonus inches achieved by his counterpart: squash is all about contending with adversity. The state of play did nothing to assuage Finn's ill will as Fred the Red made good use of her greater size. As was their wont, the seniors enabled the juniors by setting them up for doable strokes but on more than one occasion Finn tried to spank Fred the Red with his racket so as to avenge her longer reach and higher height. Reid averted these hostilities like a goalie going at it stick-to-stick in a game of lacrosse.
Stacy was amused but not surprised, as if all things were unfolding according to a script that the GAL 9000 was recording for posterity by buzzing over, under, around and through the action of the game to the sounds of Lenka singing The Show:
I'm just a little girl caught in the middle.
Life is a maze and love is a riddle.
The maze and the riddle were a wonder to behold. Stacy directed the GAL 9000 by means of a remote control in her left hand and set up Winifred with gentle strokes of the racket in her right. Being something of a music man, Reid observed that her multi-tasking combined the artistry of Twyla Tharp choreographing the Russian Saber Dance with the artistry of Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra.
Which is not to say that Reid really approved of this commotion, and so he spliced a stroke that sent the ball careening into the selfie drone with a caddywampus spin that bent the beanie propellor and sent the beanie cap and its A.I. cargo crashing to the floor. Stacy, Finn and Fred the Red filled the court with peals and squeals of delight.
By Margot Comstock
In the evening after the kids’ match, after the horrible noises from the drone drove him to smash the ball perfectly into the selfie drone, sending it, its beanie propeller, and the beanie with its artificial intelligence into pieces on the floor, Reid sat in his study, listening to Philip Glass, and smiling broadly. Yes, it was a good ending to a rather foolish day.
Reid knew he was in some ways as foolish as the day; but he was wise enough to accept himself. There were a lot of reasons to accept himself, forgive himself, whatever, he thought. He hadn’t gotten all he’d wanted in life, but most of it had had its modicum--or better--of pleasure, joy, achievement. That counted.
And there were always the games—and music.
He supposed he would never get thoroughly over his schooldays crush on Stacy. He knew now that that was what it had been…. And he knew she wasn’t what he had dreamed her to be. But he valued that youthful devotion and cared about her. Not love; well, not romantic love; just caring, maybe for a lost dream.
He’d been comfortable with Elena, but now that seemed to be ending. He thought of himself as fairly wise--really, fair and wise--but he had no idea about what was happening with his marriage now. Worse, he wistfully looked forward to its end. They really had little in common, never had had much.
Hmmm, he sort of grumbled. Well, tomorrow was another day, a day of games he loved; and next week, a day in Judge Jolene’s court. Another amusement.
Reid began to realize he was sounding morose. He laughed at himself, tuned his music to some softer etudes, fixed an Oban, picked up the McCall-Smith novel he was reading, and settled into his favorite chair.
As she left the courts, Stacy’s demeanor changed: Henry. What was to be done about Henry? She had arranged to keep him free of her business dealings--he didn’t really care or even grasp what she was doing. Reid would always cover for her; one potential problem avoided. She smiled, phew! Stacy knew herself well. She wasn’t a single path person; she bored easily; she needed variety, free range. But, in truth though seldom acknowledged even to herself, she didn’t like going it--anything--alone. And she tired easily--of people. She had known for a while she was done with Henry.
Henry sensed his marriage dissolving; it disappointed him and he tried to avoid thinking about it. He began making mistakes in his work, a problem, and socially. Letting himself get angry at Cavanaugh was one of those errors. It really wasn’t Cavanaugh’s fault: Cavanaugh was the prey. But for Henry, Cavanaugh was the problem, and so Henry struck. Now they were all in a pickle, except for Stacy of course. Just acknowledging this made Henry angrier. At whom? He declined to consider.
Already enmeshed with the young players at the bar that morning, the Kiwi was unconcerned about events to come. He looked forward to the court hearing; he was confident of success and found the whole affair amusing. He was unharmed by the precipitating dousing, well, apart from his personal pride. He flippined a puck into the hole for another win; a couple of the guys crumbled but Cav didn’t notice. Henry had no business pushing him, Cavanaugh, into the pond--it wasn’t Cavanaugh’s fault Hank’s wife was running around on Henry; from all he had heard, it certainly wasn’t the first time. Anyway it wasn’t important, just a little fun. Nothing long range—god, no.
Cav would keep his eye on Reid though…. Reid, he felt, was the only person he’d met in this part of America who really paid attention and knew what was going on. And Reid had helped him out of the hot tub that day. Cavanaugh appreciated that.
He’d tired of the game, dropped a tenner on the table for the the players, and took a seat at the bar. He began to think of moving on. He liked the games--on court and off--but he was tiring quickly of America, or at least this part of America. Maybe try New York City--no, too busy. Florida was attractive, good weather (not all of the time; he’d read about the horrible hurricanes), but…old. Maybe he’d look into South America—there was a thought—maybe Brazil? No: language would be a problem. Although Cavanaugh wasn’t averse to learning another language, it would take a lot of time. So he guessed he’d stick around here a while longer. Yis.
Long after Stacy was out and about that morning--probably already on one of the practice courts, Henry was enjoying bacon and eggs (over easy), two poppy seed bagel, and his third cup of coffee (strong and dark), when Finn scrambled down the stairs, picked up his dad’s second poppy seed bagel, raised his eyes at Henry who nodded “Sure,” and sat down to eat.
“Why am I so short?” Finn asked, in frustration. “Why did I have to play such a tall girl? Or any girl? And she’s fat too!”
Henry, who was of average height himself and had been about Finn’s size at Finn’s age, tried to comfort his son. “Oh, Finn, you’ll grow; I was small too at your age. And you’re a much better player than I was.”
“Well, that doesn’t help a lot, but thanks, Dad,” Finn said. “Still, why do they pair me with a much bigger girl?”
Henry believed it was Stacy’s attempt at forcing Finn to fight, to get better at the game. Having been there, more or less, Henry understood; he also knew it wouldn’t work.
“Not everything is fair, Finn. And sometimes folks think giving kids tough challenges makes them stronger and strive to do better. Actually, I often don’t agree with that thinking. But I believe your mother does.”
“Geesh,” the kid grumbled hopelessly.
“So how about if you and I finding some time to practice together, see if we can speed up your progress? Even better, what do you think of joining a gym? You can gain strength and flexibility there. It can be tough at first, but the rewards can be excellent.”
“I always thought that would be boring, Dad.”
“Well, it can be, at first. But if you put your heart into it, you’ll begin to see results pretty quickly; then it stops being boring and starts being exciting.”
Finn looked skeptical, but he was listening.
“Tell you what: Let’s figure out a schedule we can both keep and I’ll work and train with you a few times a week. Maybe we could share a fun meal after. What do you think?”
The boy brightened considerably.
“I don’t know if I’ll like the gym work much. But I’ll try it. I’ll try my best with you there.” Finn raised his hand to fist bump his father. “Thanks, Dad!”
Finn took off for practice with a wide smile.
When a much happier Henry ran into Reid at coffee that evening, Reid asked how Finn was doing after the difficult time the day before.
Henry was a bit surprised but he was eager to tell someone about his and Finn’s new plan. He’d thought highly of Reid and decided to trust him. He blurted out the whole story of his new arrangement with his son. He still wasn’t prepared for Reid’s response.
“What a perfect plan,” Reid said. “Wonderful foresight and generosity, Henry! And it sounds like Finn is thrilled. Hank, I believe you may have changed your son’s life permanently for the better.
“Stay strong, Henry. Let no one, no one, alter your plans for Finn!”
by Steve Hufford
Reid knew his strong endorsement of Hank’s nascent plan for Finn was exaggerated and way over the top. But he had been listening to absurd rants for some time now – every time he briefly tuned in to the US presidential election. Tawdry, Ranting, Unqualified, Mean and Petty statements had seemed to become the norm. How could they not rub off, even if just a little bit? The whole spectacle was far from “a beautiful thing” as one of the candidates so frequently put it. Though not vindictive, Reid couldn’t help wishing for complete ‘brand failure’ for the candidate whose greed and hubris led him to equate the awesome demands of the American presidency with celebrity and financial profit.
At least, Reid used his exaggeration in a good cause. First, his rant might not have been wasted at all, since Henry wasn’t the brightest guy and the strength of his message might help it stick. Second, he had always liked it when fathers and sons exercised together. It seemed that Hank and Finn would both benefit. But what really made him overstate the case was what he could see on the horizon.
A step ahead, Reid no longer trusted Stacy. He wanted to make sure that Hank and Finn were as tight as possible before the ugly custody battle ensued.
As for Hank, he didn’t sleep so well that night. Tossing and turning, the evening coffee had done him in. Not one to count sheep, nor one to pray, he tried to imagine pleasant times ahead with Finn, and how he could help his son grow to manhood. But he couldn’t sustain the image or the hopeful thoughts. He was drawn relentlessly back to prior years, his first sight of Stacy, their early years of marriage, my God how she filled a bikini, the excitement of Flinn’s birth, their hard work to stay afloat during the financial crisis, and then the sorry distance that grew between them. Layer upon layer of things said, things unsaid, and acts small and large. As the night wore on, and his thoughts continued uninterrupted by sleep, it was her recent disavowal of love for him that played like a loop, again and again.
At just nine years of age, Finn had no such problems. By the time his day was over, he eased into the rest of a well-exercised child. His morning juniors practice had been loads of fun. Cav showed them some crazy games, they did a lot of running, and then tried to land hard-hit balls in a bucket in the back corner of the court. That was kind of impossible, but Finn succeeded, for the first time ever, in hitting thirty-two backhands in a row to himself along the left sidewall. A personal best!
He loved to hear the ball smack against the front wall and then watch it arc back towards him. One bounce, and Finn could move to just where he needed to be to hit it straight again. No worries, just hitting and listening and watching and moving. He didn’t have to think about his mom and dad. Maybe they were normal anyway, and all parents were like that. He was happy in the moment. And the duration of thirty-two backhands was a nicely extended moment, a long time to feel the flow.
When the boys were drilling on court, and actually got their patterns going, Cav also liked having a moment to think. That’s why he made them wear i-MASKs or lensed eyewear at all times on court. When working with kids, it was the only way he could feel secure enough to relax. The last thing he needed was a lawsuit from some disgruntled parent whose child now had a facial scar, or, much worse, only one eye that worked. Legally speaking, Cav much preferred offense to defense.
So while the kids managed themselves, Cav’s musings that day revolved around time travel. He was developing a theory that all our problems come from living in the wrong time. The newspapers were full of stories about Americans who clearly wanted to live in the past – at least as they imagined how great things had been fifty or maybe 200 years ago. And today, that strong yearning for times past manifested itself in an abundance of racism, demagoguery, isolationism, and animosity towards fellow citizens. People who lived side by side, but in different centuries, just couldn’t seem to get along.
Politics aside, Cav was almost certain of his premise that being in the wrong time was terrible in squash. Some competitive players just couldn’t forget the error they made two points ago, and dwelled on it. They got stuck in the recent past, and to no good effect. By contrast, Cav had long ago developed his own uncanny ability on court to live about four seconds into the future. His opponents almost always found him waiting right there in the perfect spot for the ball that they just hit. Call it foresight, call it practice, call it prescience. Cav called it ‘time travel’.
Sometimes players went too far into the future. Cav remembered one of his early matches as a rising junior in New Zealand. He was playing against a seemingly non-athletic slope-shouldered chump, and all was going well. Cav was reading the patterns, hunting the volleys, cutting balls off, and guessing (sometimes actually knowing) what his opponent would think and do. But it was so easy that, during the match, Cav began to ponder his post-match dinner and the stories he would tell his buddies about the trouncing he had delivered. Cav eventually lost to that chump in the fifth. The merciless ribbing from his pals ensured he never forgot his unwarranted time travel.
But sometimes going back in time was useful, as long as you didn’t get stuck there. Whenever Cav was in a particularly tough match and found the going hard, it helped him immensely to remember the days and weeks and months past when he had drilled, trained, run and sweated in preparation for the present competition. Some brief time travel back to his preparations gave him the confidence he needed for the present and the near future.
A far more thoughtful man than he appeared to be, and because of it a far more effective hustler, Cav enjoyed showing the boys how to know what was going to happen next. Where the ball would bounce; how the path of the ball and its speed and the location of the players almost determined where the next shot was bound to go. Coaching enthusiastic and inquisitive players suited him, as did Bel Air, the club, the climate, and the whole LA area. The squash moms, most of them with a dedication to personal fitness and the wherewithal to achieve it, were just frosting on the cake. All to the good, since no one respected women more than Cav, in his own particular way.
Stacy enjoyed Finn’s times on court, too. For starters, it felt good to check the maternal duty box - done. Sometimes it was because she was surreptitiously ogling Cav from the viewing area high above the back of the court. From that angle she couldn’t fully focus on his legs and other parts of his physique that she found especially attractive, but his shoulders and fluid movement around the court were well worth watching. And the accent was always endearing.
“Yis, boys. Remimba, hit high to hit deep?”
She loved the rising pitch at the close – sounding almost like an interrogative, though he was clearly making a declarative point of one of the immutable facts of squash. She still had a thing for Kiwis like him.
Lately, though, she liked Finn’s practice hours because she was able to put the time to even better use. In fact, that particular morning’s practice may have included a personal best for her, as well. One week ahead of all the other players in the competition (just about the time required for a property survey), she had texted her work colleagues:
Good news on drones - expect bid for 1000 units. Plan for expansion!
by James Prudden
Stacy serves as the central hub of a wheel whose spokes are entirely male. She controls three men (maybe more; stay tuned), each with a different role to play. One is of course her husband Henry, who is aware that their marriage is faltering, but who would prefer to stick it out. Nonetheless, the stench of divorce wafts in the air. The most important bond they now share is their son Finn. That glue will hold, at least for a while.
Another is Reid, who has always been interested in Stacy, going all the way back to Darien High, and those years of unrequited interest had only compounded her allure. He knows her well enough not to trust her, but sooner or later, if he gets the chance to pick that fruit, it will be picked, and there will be one slobbery mess eating it up.
And then there is Cavanaugh, a rough-hewn import with an endearing accent but a curious paucity of morals. His squash over the years had kept him in fine shape, which worked well when he and Stacy were busy doing the horizontal rumba, but in the afterglow of love the pillow talk between the two would devolve into schemes. Morals were never a big concern with Stacy either; indeed, the lack thereof was a bit of a turn-on.
Having driven Finn off to a friend’s house after his squash lesson, she suddenly felt a wave of sexual friskiness overtake her, and texted Cavanaugh to see if he could get away for a little extracurricular exercise. Henry was off somewhere desultorily going about his business, distractedly attending to matters of the wallet while continuing to avoid the trouble in his heart.
Which meant the house was free….
Stacy knew Cavanaugh had a long-term habit of sleeping with pretty much whoever he fancied, and so knew that their time together was not really important to him. That was okay with Stacy. A friend-with-benefits arrangement fit her life perfectly, and one of the benefits that they had between them was the ability to scheme big, such as in the suit against Henry. Again, that morals thing was never an issue between Cavanaugh and Stacy.
First on the to-do list was an energetic romp in which both Stacy and Cavanaugh took their athletic selves to calorically intense levels of excitation. Arms and legs akimbo, upside down and over and out, they had practiced their individual preferences enough with one another that they now had developed an efficient sexual choreography that in the end, just half an hour later, left both satisfied and a little spent. Calm ensued for a time.
“You’re the only Kiwi I’ve done it with, Cav; do they all do it like that down there?”
“Yis, my sweetie, yis they do, and we learnt it from the flightless bird itself, cuz kiwis are known as energetic little bastards, and that’s what we are.”
“You are more a lion than a bird, you dog you.”
“I find your metaphors a tad confusing, sweetie. Now, let me ask, when is Sir Silverman coming home; I think I best be on my way, eh?”
“No worries for a while yet. He had a meeting with a house flipper down in Long Beach, so another couple hours I would think,” Stacy said. She smiled, “Listen, I haven’t told you yet, but our little expansion plan is now entering a new phase because I just received word that we are in for a big new order. So, again, here’s the deal: you get your lawyer to hurry up with the suit against Harry, and when things are going your way, propose accepting the property next to the drone company. Henry isn’t stupid, nor is his lawyer: they’d accept title transfer of a dry plot of land out near the desert over a multimillion dollar settlement.”
“And you are saying the land gets written over to me, eh? What if I take all the profits from the sale of my new-found property to Drones R Us, or whatever it’s called, and screw you out of the deal?”
“You wouldn’t do that, you Kiwi bastard. The only screwing you’ll be doing is what we just did. Because you will be the listed partner in a limited partnership, with me in the background, silent. It’ll be a 51%-49% split, with you reaping a 2% reward just for being you. How’s that for a plan?”
“Hey, that’s not what we agreed, though, sweetie. I thought it was all me and you were taking me on faith?”
“Fat chance. I’ve taken you in a lot of ways, but faith ain’t one of them. You’ll make plenty, and for nothing. Trust me, this’ll work, otherwise I’ll have your balls. Plus, you get continued access to this,” she said, flinging off the sheet to expose her still-naked body.
“Yis, I seem to remimba this part, that I do,” he said, burrowing his head into the nape of her neck. But before things got restarted, he stopped. “I sense I have to get out of here,” he said, and got up, flung on his clothes and hopped into his car, a practiced extraction that took all of 2 minutes from start to finish.
And a good thing too, because Henry’s meeting down in Long Beach had been called off before he even got there, and so he had turned around and headed for home. They say rats can sometimes sense danger before it happens, and Cavanaugh was like that.
The cuckold Henry pulled into his driveway not 5 minutes after Cavanaugh had gone, and remained clueless.
Hearing Henry’s car Stacy jumped up and put on her clothes, with plenty of time to spare. She had been thinking about the suit and realized she would have to get Henry to act quickly on it, not let it hang around for months and years, like a bad case of foot fungus. Get him to act on it fast before lawyer bills pile up, and fast enough to take advantage of the adjacent property.
The scheme was perfect, but timing was a big flaw. This had to go fast. She realized that she was in the best position to get Henry to attend to the problem.
She heard a whump downstairs as Henry hurled his briefcase on the kitchen table, as was his practice, and then the clink of his keys, similarly hurled.
“Hello Henry, you’re home early,” Stacy called out as she went downstairs.
“Yes, meeting called off. Where’s Finn?”
“At his friend Jethro’s. He’s having dinner over there. Had a good squash lesson today. You know, Henry, I’ve been thinking about this suit and I’m growing more concerned every day. I think you need to make this go away. Do you realize all the lawyer bills that are going to come your way? This is going to be death by a thousand cuts; this is going to hurt us both, damn it. What is your plan?”
“I have no plan. My plan is to listen to my goddamn lawyer, that’s my plan.”
“Yes, you’ll listen to him at $400 an hour, over and over again, and as far as I’m concerned that’s a shitty plan. We need action, not dithering.”
“I have an appointment tomorrow, I’ll see what he says. I agree, time is important, but we haven’t heard any proposal from the other side, so what am I supposed to do?”
“Tell him to find out what’s on Cavanaugh’s lawyer’s mind. We need to at least know what the starting number is. How much are we gonna lose because of that imbecilic thing you did?”
“That something like that has gone to a lawsuit is the thing that’s so fucking imbecilic. In the old days if someone dissed someone then they had it out: a good argument, maybe a couple of loose teeth. Only thing that happens nowadays is lawyers getting richer. It’s a goddamn crisis.”
“That’s why I say circumvent the damn lawyers and pay him off with something. Anything. I know Cavanaugh, I’m going to ask him next time I see him at the club. He teaches Finn again on Thursday. I’m going to find out what will zip his lip and get him to put away the suit.”
“Well, good luck then. But I’m also going to the lawyer tomorrow. We’ll cover it from both angles. Now, if you don’t mind, a glass of pinot is necessary.”
Stacy smiled. She really is a nasty little bitch, isn’t she, she thought.
"Good morning, GAL"
by Chris Dec
Reid was uneasy. He had been nervous since Stacy pressured him into hiding her separate financial transactions from Henry and his lawyers. California, after all, was a community property state, and Reid wasn’t clear about his legal liability if there were a divorce. He was also unsure of his ethical requirements around representing both their financial portfolios while working one against the other. And morally, well, he was feeling guilty about his secret desire to help the split widen, making Stacy available to him, now that he and Elena were just not happening. This kind of behavior from him was not a fair game, and his conscience began the slow process of waking up.
It was clear to him that Stacy must come clean with Henry about all finances, if only to protect herself from real legal trouble. He, as their investment counselor, should facilitate the conversation. But he didn’t want to talk about this with either of them on an unprotected phone line. He twirled his keys for a few seconds and then bound out the door, pulled the car out of the drive, uncertain about where he should go first: The club to work off this anxiety by hitting some squash balls, to Henry’s home office or to Stacy’s drone factory.
* * *
Henry sat in his kitchen with a cup of coffee and pondered the last few months, the stupid marital agreement that sent his wife into the bed of that damned Cavanaugh who was now suing him for his simple jealous fit and, ok, yes, for shoving him into a hot tub. How had it all come to this? Whose idea was the agreement to ‘take a break’ from marriage? That was not part of the marriage vows. He didn’t want to be with any other woman, and he certainly did not want to lose Stacy.
Maybe he could make one more attempt to revitalize and repair their marriage, while they jointly handled the business of getting rid of the lawsuit. Stacy had been spending less time at her mother’s, which Henry interpreted as a sign she wanted to get back to their marriage. Just as he was mentally setting the stage for a romantic lunch, with chilled wine and soft music, his cell rang with his Stacy ring tone.
“Hank, let’s move faster on making this offer to Cav right now. Some things have come up. Can you meet me at Griller’s for lunch?”
Wow. What timing. He calmed himself so he wouldn’t sound too eager. He had to finesse her back into romantic reconciliation.
“Sure, Stace, but why not meet here at the house? I have to be here to get a client’s check from FedEx,” he lied. “I’ll make us lunch… it’ll be ready when you get here.”
“OK, I can be there in an hour. Hank… one more thing… Cav is claiming his squash game and his earning ability as a teacher have been compromised by an injury to his right wrist when he landed in the hot tub. The whole arm is dressed for court in white tape and a sling. His lawyer is contemplating a few million more in damages. We have to make this offer really good, and right away. We should sweeten the deal with no closing costs.”
That piece of shit. I just saw him slamming some powerful balls with a steady racquet, and he’s been fine for a week. All of a sudden he has an injury?!
Henry was pissed at this arrogance for a minute, but then got his focus back on the bigger picture of a tidy resolution, peace and reconciliation. He would just get on with it and get the bastard out of his life. It was easy really, to hand over a remote piece of property whose value in the real estate world was questionable, to avoid a costly and nasty battle. Maybe he could even make Cavanova himself go away, along with this stupid lawsuit—away from Stacy and away from their marriage, fragile as it was. Deport the asshole back to New Zealand. Did we ever deport people back to New Zealand?
“Okay. Let me think about that a little more, Stacy. See you in a bit.”
When they hung up, Henry checked the contents of the fridge for available ingredients, and looked around the place. She was going to be there in an hour to finalize the plan, so he didn’t want her distracted by kitchen mess. Plus, after serving her his famous curried tuna salad in avocado and a glass of her favorite wine, he might have a better chance of getting to the romantic part of lunch. Some good sex and an earnest plea to try marriage counseling, pledging his commitment to a new start, reminding her of Finn’s stage in life and how a divorce would hurt him… how could she resist at least another try? He sniffed his armpits, combed his fingers through his hair and began tidying.
But Finn and Jethro, still at school until 4, had taken over the dining room table for the past week with their upcoming science fair project. After their tour of the Drones R Us factory, and a few spare parts from the assembly room floor, courtesy of his mom, light bulbs went off in the boys’ heads about the possibilities of cannibalizing a few prototypes, adding them to their already awesome killer bot vehicle, and taking first prize. They were getting quite skilled with the workings of the new and improved GAL 9000. Parts were everywhere on the living room floor, dining room table, and in the den: circuit boards, wires, tiny hovercraft bodies, little cameras and tiny recording devices.
What a mess those little geeks made! He had to smile at the thought of the slight boy, unsure of his place in the world of competitive sports, suddenly discovering a working brain that opened another path in his life. He was momentarily awash with love for his child. Henry was now exercising at the gym with him and influencing his interest in the game, but whatever Finn chose to do in life—jock or autobot genius—he would support him.
Henry bound up the stairs to the master bedroom, playfully slam dunking his underwear and socks into the hamper from five feet.
“And the crowd goes wild as number eleven scores again!” he shouted to the air.
“You are a winner.” The air answered.
“What the… ?” Henry spun around to see a talking member of the GAL 9000 team glide into the room and hover behind his head.
“Where’d you come from?”
“I am GAL 9000. I am a voice activated selfie drone for your convenience. I am the latest in high tech personal mobile devices from Drones R Us, an all woman-owned enterprise.”
He chuckled as he recalled that Finn had been playing around with the blasted thing down the hall the other day. The kid abandoned her as soon as he heard “The Simpsons” theme song blare from the downstairs plasma.
“Well, hi, GAL 9000, what else do you have to say?”
“…get your butt to bed, Finnster… “
‘‘…g’night Dad, night, Mom.”
“…coffee’s made, I have to get going… that meeting in Long Beach.”
Listening to the comings and goings of the last 24 hours of his household, Henry was a bit aghast, as well as twistedly amused, at how this creepy little electronic spy could be awake and silently mobile, and record every sound she picked up within a fairly wide radius. Stealth Selfie Drone… just like a female.
He plucked the still whirling sneak out of the air and inspected the control panel at her underbelly. He almost expected her to squeal: Unhand me, you brute! But Gal 9000 went still, silent, and compliant. He pressed a button labeled with a universal symbol for something he didn’t recognize. She resumed her recitation with cutting edge clarity and superior sound quality:
“…get your lawyer to hurry up with the suit against Henry… propose the property next to the drone company… a dry plot of land near the desert over a multimillion dollar settlement… a limited partnership, me in the background, silent… a 51%-49% split, you reap a 2% reward…”
“…Reid has been a big help… Hank has no idea I‘ve been separating my investments. I’ll take away the bulk of my drone money and hide that, too, before I serve him with the divorce papers…”
“…will ya come to the land down unda with me, Stacy? We can spend some of our profits, buy a house together…”
“…oh, Cav…” [murmur] “…oh…”
Henry stood motionless and stunned for several minutes, then felt a searing sense of betrayal radiating from his brain down through his body, and as GAL 9000 chattered away with the afternoon’s audible and intensely embarrassing details from the master bedroom, he barely heard the car that was pulling up into the driveway.
By Pierre Bastien
Henry was standing stock-still in the middle of the master bedroom, listening to the oooh-ing and ahh-ing coming from the drone’s play-by-play of his wife having sex with Cavanaugh.
It was all very surreal. Stacy was on her way over to the house right now. Henry had been hoping to enjoy a nice meal with her. If things all went according to the ideal plan, they’d be enjoying some make-up sex right here in this room, right there in that king-size four-poster bed.
Instead, Henry was standing next to the bed, listening to her doing it with another man. Weird, thought Henry fleetingly — she makes the same sounds having sex with him as when she does it with me. Hearing Stacy’s recorded sexy-voice was oddly titillating. Every time he heard it, Henry would be distracted for a second, only to be dragged back to reality when Cavanaugh’s voice butted in on the recording.
Henry, finally realizing that he was torturing himself, switched off the GAL 9000 and walked out of the bedroom. He didn’t have much of a plan, so he just stood in the hallway. He held the drone in his left hand. So this is the future, he thought, staring down at the drone.
Henry knew Stacy was taking a break from their marriage, and he knew Cavanaugh was the other man. For all Henry knew, there were OTHER other men, but Cavanaugh was a certainty. Even so — even though he knew Cavanaugh was in the picture, and was somewhat vaguely mentally aware of the idea of Cavanaugh boning his wife — to actually listen to it happening was overwhelming.
Ding-dong. The doorbell rang. For a second, Henry imagined that the doorbell was ringing on the drone’s replay. Henry was a little lost, not entirely sure where he was in time and space.
Ding-dong. There it was again. Snapping back to his senses, Henry realized someone was at the door. He dashed down the stairs, still holding the drone, eager for something to do other than stand in the hallway spinning cycles in his mind.
Henry ripped open the door, not bothering to peek through the side glass to find out who it was.
“Reid!” exclaimed Henry. “What are you doing here?”
“Hey Henry,” said Reid. “Sorry to bother you in the middle of the day. Guess you didn’t get my text, but I was driving by and wanted to talk to you or Stacy.”
“Stacy?” asked Henry defensively. He couldn’t help wondering if maybe there was something going on between her and Reid, too. All possibilities were on the table at this point.
“I’m the only one home,” answered Henry, “although Stacy happens to be on her way here right now.”
“Is everything okay?” asked Reid, stealing a downward glance at the drone still in Henry’s hand.
felt anger welling up inside him. He was furious that he’d been put in
this situation. He wanted to tell the truth about what Stacy had done,
and yet he didn’t exactly want the truth to be out.
“Actually, no,” Henry said eventually, “things aren’t great.” That was a good start on telling the truth. “But right now I’m curious to know why you’re here.”
“It’s about our professional relationship,” said Reid, sensing it was his opportunity to come clean. “I’ve realized that I can’t be a financial advisor to you and Stacy any longer.”
Henry really didn’t want to think about finances right now. Then again, he had just learned from the faithful GAL 9000 that Reid had been helping Stacy hide her money somehow. And Reid had driven over here to tell him something. This was intriguing, he thought — might as well see what’s going on.
“What do you mean?” asked Henry, leaving an open-ended opportunity for Reid’s answer. “What’s the matter?”
“It’s…” Reid trailed off. “It’s Stacy. She’s been making transactions that you don’t know about.”
“I know,” said Henry, looking down at the drone in his hand. “I’ve just learned that.”
Reid was puzzled by Henry’s response. What did the drone have to do with it? Something wasn’t right, but Reid continued anyway. At this point, he needed to unload all the details.
“There’s nothing illegal about what Stacy’s doing,” said Reid, “it’s just… I don’t feel I can advise you appropriately any more. It’s a conflict of interest. I need to step aside.”
“Conflict of interest?” asked Henry, getting heated. “What conflict of interest?”
“Well, Stacy engaged me on the side for some additional financial advice. I can’t tell you all the details, because I have a fiduciary duty to her. I’ve known her a long time and wanted to help her out. I didn’t realize it at first, or maybe I was in denial, but I need to end this now. I can’t be an adviser to either of you any longer.”
“Wait,” said Henry, his voice rising, “a Wall Street guy worried about conflicts of interest and fiduciary duty?”
“Just doing my bit to make America great again,” said Reid, hoping to cut the tension.
Henry couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry.
“Listen,” continued Reid. “There’s more. I can’t tell you about Stacy’s finances, but there’s something else I need to tell you about her.”
Henry looked up and over Reid’s shoulder, down the driveway, looking for Stacy’s car. “She’ll be here pretty soon,” said Henry. “Come on in.”
They went into the house and made their way to the kitchen. Henry put the GAL 9000 down on the kitchen island, grabbed two drinking glasses and a bottle of Pellegrino from the fridge, and poured a glass for each of them as they sat down to talk.
Reid began, “I’ve been friends with Stacy a long time. You know that. But you and I have become friends too. And I care about Finn as well. I can see how well you get along with him and that you’re becoming even closer.”
“Stacy’s up to something,” continued Reid. “She’s got some scheme going, something to do with a property that you control. I think you need to watch out.”
Henry took a swig of Pellegrino, then put the glass back down on the countertop with a clink.
“You need to hear this,” said Henry. He picked up the drone and turned it back on. Using an app on his phone, he rewound the drone’s recording to the appropriate spot.
“…get your lawyer to hurry up with the suit against Henry… propose the property next to the drone company… a dry plot of land near the desert over a multimillion dollar settlement…”
Henry paused the playback. “I won’t play you the rest,” he said, wide-eyed, “but trust me, things don’t improve from here.”
Reid didn’t say anything. He sat, fidgeting, his leg bouncing up and down on the leg of the stool. A light fizzing sound filled the space, coming from the glasses of Pellegrino on the counter.
Finally Henry continued, his anger rising as he spoke. “I just talked to Stacy. She says Cavanaugh’s going to appear in court with his arm all bandaged up. They’re trying to pressure me to settle! They’re trying to pressure me to give them the land!”
“Well that’s bull,” replied Reid, trying to defuse the tension again. “I’ve seen Cavanaugh giving lessons at the club like nothing’s happened. They’re bluffing."
“Who’s bluffing?” asked a voice coming from behind them. Henry and Reid whipped their heads around. Stacy was standing behind them in the door to the kitchen, staring at them.
Henry stood up, his face turning crimson, his eyes locked on Stacy. He grabbed the bottle of Pellegrino by the neck and suddenly chucked it, sidearm, towards Stacy’s head. It flipped end over end through the air like a Frisbee, finally connecting with the kitchen wall a few feet away from Stacy and shattering in an explosion of glass and fizz.
by Sasha Cooke
Stacy raised her eyebrows but then caught sight of the drone. “Well I guess all the cards are on the table,” she said. “And just what do you have to say, Reidy, I mean assuming you don’t have any projectiles?”
Reid started in about fiduciary duty but Stacy raised a hand after half a sentence. “ Excuse me a moment, I‘d like something a little stronger than fizzy water, although thanks for the offer, Henry.”
She turned and walked towards the drinks cabinet. All these years after Finn’s birth and she was still confident that the sight of her walking away and bending over for a bottle would keep the boys quiet while she thought. She pulled out a bottle of Campari and poured three fingers into one of the tall glasses above the cabinet. Half a small bottle of tonic and a swizzle stick to stir it. Not really a swizzle stick. In the early days of their marriage when Stacy still thought it might be fun to do the whole decorating thing she had found these silver straws, made, in a quirky conceit, to look like real straw straws, but with tiny charms hanging from tinier chains at the tops. Edwardian, the fey old antique dealer had told her.
She turned and saw that the two of them had barely moved. Henry after his brief bursts of violent emotion was generally pliable- that’s why this whole thing had started, wasn’t it? Reid was his usual reedy self, you could always blow him any way you wanted.
She stirred the drink a moment longer the tiny fox jingling on its chain, pulled out the straw, and standing hipshot in her heels, pointed at each of them in turn. “Henry, you still can’t see that it’s childish stuff like that that,” she gestured with her drink at the dripping wall, “that makes me want to mess with you? Honestly I knew after a year that you would never grow up, but by then Finn was on the way, and you know the rest. And Reid, you think I don’t know you don’t give a rat’s ass for your fiduciary duty? You’ve wanted me since high school and you’ve come up with a weasely way to move me and Henry apart, as if we needed one. Let’s face it, Elena’s no genius but even she knows you’re not going to grow up either. Now I guess she has the tits to go with that air-head, which I guess goes with your damn air-horn,” she added irrelevantly, waving the straw in a musing loop.
Pointing it at them again school-marm fashion, she snarled, “If the two of you think you can get in my way, you’ve forgotten how well I know you both, but…”
She could see all of it as if it were on story boards or a damn Power Point, and it would indeed be damn satisfying, but was it really the way to go? The law suit wasn’t going to wash- probably the settlement too, and divorce-wise she WAS the adulterer. Piss guys off and they’re harder to manage. C’mon, they had no idea what was going on in her head, most men are somewhere on the autism spectrum- clueless about what anyone else thinks.
She stirred the drink a moment longer, the tiny bunny jingling on its chain, and slipping out of her heels padded over to the high stools at the kitchen counter. She slipped onto one and put her bare feet on the second rung, shrinking herself. Holding the drink in both hands she sipped at it through the straw. Without looking up she said, “Well it looks like I’m in trouble, fellas, any thoughts on what I better do now? I’m still Finn’s Mom and I’ve known you both forever.” She waited a beat and looked up. Reid was already working into his “Oh I’m a thoughtful and sympathetic man” face, and Henry, blindsided, looked like a lower primate being shown a vanishing coin trick. “I mean you’re the guys I’ve always relied on, even though I know this time I’ve…”
NO. No damn way. It would work just fine- she’d been pulling versions of it for as long as she could remember, but it was just plain BENEATH her to let these clowns play the big kind men taking care of the wayward girl. Still, she wasn’t going to be able to run everything her way- she had to make sure she came out at least fifty- fifty.
She stirred the drink a moment longer, the tiny top hat jingling on its chain, and raised the glass to her lips. Naturally the straw gave her a good poke in the eye. She jerked her head away from it and gave a burst of laughter followed by a look of mock dismay. “Curses, foiled again. If it’s not a Gott in Himmel straw it’s some darn recording drone. Any plan I make gangs agly if it involves inanimate objects! Remember that floor sander Henry? How about that time I ran the cash register at the high school bazaar, eh, Reid?” The boys were looking almost ready to turn. Was that a slight chuckle from Reid?
Stacy set down her drink, walked toward them and put a hand on each of their shoulders, letting them feel that she was still giggling at shared memories. “Now listen you guys, I was already figuring this sucker wasn’t going to work. Cavanaugh’s really not up to this kind of tricky stuff anyway. I mean he’s just a kid, Henry, not a real businessman like you guys. but I’ve got me an idea for a way better one. Listen to this.”
Yeah, sure Stace, that’s the way to go, not humiliating, not too sexy demoness scaring them off forever. Only one problem.
“New Players, New Angles”
by A.J. Kohlhepp
The boys were well into their second glass of Rodney Strong, an amicable wine that stacked up well against pricier bottles from the Russian River Valley. Stacy had poured the pinot aggressively but sipped Pellegrino judiciously, begging off from their collective libation with the prospects of a long afternoon run. Things were coming back into form.
“Let me get this straight,” said Hank incredulously. “That Kiwi crook thinks he can build a squash center way the flock out there?”
“And he thinks he’s gonna get a bunch of Princeton alums to pay for it,” guffawed Reid, knowing full well that a Tiger and his, or her, money were never easily parted. Not even when there were “naming opportunities” involved.
“Exactly,” smiled Stacy. “We give him what he wants–the land–and he leaves us alone, once and for all. And I get back to the loves of my life.”
“Loves,” muttered Hank, emphasizing the plurality of the term by drawing out the s at the end in a downward sigh.
“Loves,” Stacy replied shortly and sweetly. “You and Finn, of course.”
This pleased Hank immensely, and she sealed it with a perfunctory kiss.
“And Reid,” she laughed, giving him a kiss as well as she got up from the table.
Reid shrugged merrily, meeting Hank’s eyes momentarily as they darted his way.
“Why don’t you boys head into the living room and we can work out the details.”
“Works for me,” said Reid, though there were other rooms in the house that he would rather visit with her, and none of them in the presence of her husband. Stacy was never more alluring to him than when she was crushing the competition, and he couldn’t wait to see how she would get out of this jam.
Hank, already headed toward the cozier confines of a large leather sectional, paused to look at the drone on the counter. “Wait a minute,” he puzzled. “What about –“
Stacy knew exactly what he was thinking and cut him off before he could even frame the question. Although she wasn’t conscious of it, the advice of countless coaches propelled her forward in this moment. Seize the T. Get in the lead pack and go as hard as you can, as long as you can.
“Really sorry you had to hear that, sweetheart,” she offered in her most consoling voice. “But you know we need that for the trial, right?”
The two men paused at the threshold of the living room and looked at her as one.
“The jilted lover angle,” she offered breezily, as if this were patently obvious. Act, don’t react. Stay calm and keep breathing.
“You mean–,” began Hank, starting to imagine the effect on jurors (not to mention on his own bruised ego) of that particularly prejudicial piece of audio evidence.
“Be right in,” she laughed, turning toward the near-empty bottle on the counter. “Shall I open another?”
- - -
From the driver seat of his rather decrepit Boxster convertible–the candy apple red had faded to a dusty macintosh hue–Cav had an unobstructed view of the land that incited so much maneuvering.
“Can you remind me why it has to be this one,” muttered his precocious companion, who was working absent-mindedly on a wad of chewing gum that she had popped in prior to her squash lesson and kept chewing on their drive into the San Gabriel foothills. “What’s wrong with that piece,” Rowan asked, looking up from her phone and momentarily extricating a digit long enough to point toward another equally desolate chunk of terrain.
“It’s a numbers thing, kiddo,” reminded Cav. “Seven times seven equals–“
“Oh, yeah,” she half-nodded, turning back to the incessant torrent of handheld pixelated activity that passed for “social” interaction in her peer group. “Forty-nine.”
“Exactly,” he enthused, reaching a hand over to muss her gingery top, noticing a tweak in his right forearm as he did so. “A lucky number squared is twice as lucky, right?”
“Right,” she assented, recognizing certain computational shortcomings in his theory. But Cav was a jock and thus, in her mind, exempt from the kinds of precision required by her SSAT prep math tutor.
“And all you need to do is–“
“Tell my mom it’s for the Princeton thing?”
“Correct,” enthused the cunning Kiwi. “The Greater Los Angeles Princeton Alumni Center for Squash.”
“GLA-PACS,” giggled Rowan, proud of her facilities in recognizing acronymic opportunities.
The girls couldn’t hit a backhand length for shit, observed Cav, but she was pretty good with her lines. Rowan Shields shared her mother’s adolescent coloration and ambition but not, at least not yet, the sculpted cheek bones that had seemed to catapult Brooke to early stardom.
At that moment, she was also demonstrating her dexterity with instantaneous communications. One quick snapshot, with her in the foreground, Cav in the middle distance, and the San Gabriel mountains in the far background, uploaded with a couple of surreptitious clicks and a questionable caption: #CoolestCoachEver. The only way to improve this selfie, she reflected, would be to shoot it from one of those weird drones that her little sister’s squash pal Finn was always fiddling with.
Cav was actually proud of himself for coming up with this new angle. Having heard before coming over that Americans were fetishistic about their university affiliations, he had observed the prevalence of college-themed gear among the movers and shakers in LA. Not that they wore their crests and logos out about town, mind you; it was more like a subtle series of tribal signals engaged in the locker rooms, in the clubs, on the courts and courses. Represent for the old alma mater, and all that shit.
Even Reid and Stacy, otherwise level-headed people, seemed to cherish a college-based bond that in some ways trumped family and faction, race and religion and region. Cavs found it all thoroughly boring but when boring worked–as in that straight volley drop that provides an endless series of winners against an opponent whose movement is compromised–you use it. Just win.
The squash angle, which made the whole plot feasible into the future, was a bit more obtuse. It seemed that young Rowan Shields’ mother had been nurturing a low-grade grudge against an ex-spouse who rose to fame and fortune through his facility with a whole different racket. Though she could never hope to eclipse him on the hard courts, the former Mrs. Agassi was hoping for vengeance one generation and one athletic pursuit removed: her own girls would defeat Andre’s at squash, and the host site–a gleaming new club redolent with the trappings of Ivy League elitism–would add insult to injury. At least that was the play.
For now, he simply needed title and deed. “Mangari,” he chanted to himself in Maori, as he often did in key moments of his life. “Be lucky.”
- - -
Two of the men in her life were snoozing comfortably on the sectional, thanks to the wine and a little afternoon enhancer she had dropped into the bottle before pouring out the last half glasses. The third was probably just finishing his lunch at school and would stay late for robotics club this afternoon; the fourth was likely coaching up some hot momma(s) at the club, waiting to hear from her about their clandestine stratagem.
Stacy slipped her phone into its case on her upper arm, grabbed her ergonomically designed Badwater Ultra- water bottle, and headed out the door for the San Gabriel mountains. As she closed the door behind her and took off toward the trail, a sleek and silent drone lifted effortlessly off the roof.
- - -
“See you at 3:00,” declared a text message appearing at that exact moment on Cavanaugh’s phone. ”Lot 49.”
by Sean Hanlon
Cavanaugh cried out “Kia wamarie!” on learning from his mobile device that his Princeton Project at Lot 49 was progressing nicely as Stacy and her psychiatrist had meanwhile settled into the viewing area above where Cavanaugh would soon be challenging Finn and Fred the Red to a game of squash. Stacy had asked her therapist to assess whether Finn’s obsession with Fred’s height amounted to a neuroses of one kind or the other, but the truth is she also had something else on her mind: her psychiatrist was a guy who knew a guy who knew Chet Beau-Zeau, a hedge fund billionaire with no profits to speak of and plans to colonize Mars.
“Kia wamarie” means “Good luck” in the Maori language of an aboriginal ingenue who bestowed her charms on Cavanaugh in the days of his wayward youth. Stacy likewise wished him the best of luck. From their vantage point in the viewing area, the spectators could watch the Finn and Fred prepare for their match against Cavanaugh by going through the motions of their squash routines. Fred bounced a ball off the walls and into a bucket while Finn tried again and again to break his record of striking thirty-two backhand strokes in a row. He struggled to get past thirty-one because Fred the Red was on his mind: Did she notice he was taller now? Did she suspect his added height was supplied by shoes fitted with Dr. Scholl’s Massaging Gel Insoles? Fred bounced a ball into the bucket and said:
"My mother dated a man from Greenland just before I was born. Erik the Red discovered Greenland and so I am pretty sure that's where my hair comes from."
Finn flubbed his backhand strokes time and time again as Fred related in some detail that Erik was a Viking from Iceland who discovered Greenland in 982 A.D. Greenland had far more ice than Iceland, but Erik the Red named his discovery after bushes and trees as a medieval marketing ploy. He said: “People would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name.” A boom in Greenland real estate followed thereupon.
Once her tale was told, Finn regained his backhand stroke. His resentment of Fred’s bonus inches had moved him to google the heck out of her hair in hopes of finding some way to cut her down to size. He hacked this away: “People with red hair can’t take the sun. They get sunburn and freckles and lose their cool. I’m taller than I used to be.”
Fred tried to keep her cool but her next stroke missed the wall she was aiming at and hit the bucket instead, the ball careening hither and yon before coming to rest Finn’s feet. Stacy watched Finn kick the ball at Fred and decided this was a good time to get her own show on the road. She nudged the guy who knew a guy with her elbow as a way of inviting him to gaze upon her mobile device as it conjured double doors of stained-glass bearing the images of an Archangel brandishing a sword and a Mormon brandishing a book. Beneath them ran archaic script: “St. Michael and David Evans make common cause for the higher powers.”
The guy who knew a guy looked askance at the Mormon: a young fellow sporting a black tie, a black and white name tag, and a white shirt with short sleeves revealing the forearms of a stevedore. Stacy said: “Dave attended the webbing and the wedding of the internet. He established the computer science program at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City with a grant from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. President Eisenhower started DARPA after the Russians sent Sputnik into outer space. DARPA consecrated the plural marriage of Dave’s computer program to three colleges on the California coast during the Christmas season of 1969. The internet is the first fruits of this marriage. PayPal and Amazon came later on. Open the podcast doors, GAL.”
The podcast doors opened onto a countdown etched into the reddish surface of Mars. The guy who knew a guy asked: “Who is GAL?” Stacy chuckled. “GAL is a what, not a who. GAL is the name of my selfie drone and an acronym for Galactic Action Locator.
Cavanaugh strolled into the court below, his left hand holding his racquet and his mobile device and his left arm cradled in white tape and a sling so as to advertise the grievous injury he had suffered at the hands of Stacy’s spouse. He called Finn and Fred to his side so they might see how his mobile device transmitted the selfie wonders Stacy had contrived.
The podcast put the sounds of The Flight of the Bumblebee to the sights captured by her selfie drone: Stacy and Reid with Finn and Fred in a comic doubles match mixing genders and age. The junior players looked like dancers who could not agree to what sort of music they were dancing to: he a hip-hop rapster and she a country two-step girl. Stacy played a Ballerina and Reid a Keystone Cop: here enchanted by her pirouettes and there alarmed by Finn’s attempts to chastise Fred’s bonus inches by applying his racquet to her derriere. Reid brought order to the farce by closing the podcast with a nicely spliced stroke that separated the selfie drone from the rotor keeping it aloft.
“Those are some rambunctious kids,” said the guy who knew a guy. “Stacy replied: “Squash lets you take your aggressions out on a ball that feels no pain. Did you know that a squash court was home to the Fermi Paradox?”
“Pair a what?”
“Dox! Enrico Fermi was an Italian immigrant who built the first nuclear reactor ever in a squash court at the University of Chicago. His paradox was inspired by a cartoon in the New Yorker by Alan Dunn where aliens take possession of New York garbage cans. Fermi asked: Where are all the others? He said: if we are not alone in the universe, somebody would have conquered our galaxy by now. Enrico did the math to prove it. He was a brilliant scientist.”
Stacy smiled. Her therapist shrugged. After an uneasy pause, Stacy spoke again: “Sci-fi movies notwithstanding, there is no more evidence for aliens than there is for God and God, at least, does a star turn or two in the human comedy. To quote Popeye the Sailor Man and a can of spin-age from Exodus 3:14: ‘I yam who I yam.’ It is what It is. Of course, space aliens might have left their calling card on Mars.”
The guy who knew a guy wanted to hear less about God and more about space aliens on Mars but Stacy thought it best to split the difference by respecting his aversion while deflecting his desire. To this end she talked instead about the rambunctious kids orbiting Cavanaugh two-on-one. She noticed that Cavanaugh’s wounded wing did not slow him down: his steps were lighter than air, as if his wide shoulders and narrow hips were filled with helium. Her husband called him Cavanova after Casanova, and that was okay with her. Cavanova’s heart was as big as his body. Stacy sighed. If only her husband’s body was as big as his heart. She turned to the guy who knew a guy, who inverted his own gaze. He said:
“Your son looks like a healthy and happy nine-year-old boy to me but his playmate seems to be indulging in a Freudian fantasy. Sigmund had a name for the delusion of a girl who believes she is really the offspring of people far grander than the simple souls who are raising her to maturity. He called this the family romance. Miss Winnifred’s belief that she bears the hair of Erik the Red may reflect some internal conflict about her budding physicality. Red hair and freckles are lovely to behold but sunburn is the red flag warning of a predisposition to malignant melanoma. Freud would say Fred the Red is rejecting the flawed father of her adolescence and embraces Erik the Red as the valiant father she feared and admired as a toddler. She ascribes her beauty to Erik and blames Henry for her inability to conjured up a tan. And what is on your fantasy, if I may be so bold?
Stacy surveyed the court below. Finn sliced a backhand that eluded Cavanaugh and Fred retrieved the wayward ball and fluffed her carrot top. Stacy said: “My fantasy is you ask your attorney to set up a meet for me with Chet Beau-Zeau. I get the property abutting the Drones R Us factory and leverage that into a minority share in the company. Drones R Us is a GAL thing: no GUYs allowed. I think that is a error that Beau-Zeau can correct if he makes my employers an offer they cannot refuse: Sell out or I’ll steal all your GALs and make my own selfie drones. Billionaires can get away with that sort of thing. Once we control the company, I sell selfie drones on Earth and Mr. Beau-Zeau sends one to map Mars as a come-on for his colony. I’ll explore the Inner Sanctum while he explores Outer Space. Our biometrics may be able to tell him whether there are bed bugs on Mars and our tech support can put him in remote control of the mapping from his hot tub if that’s what he wants to do. I know a bit about hot tubs.”
“My boyfriend and my husband had a fracas over a hot tub just the other day. That’s how I’m getting the property abutting the selfie drone HQ,”
The guy who knew a guy tried to think about this, but the more he thought the less he understood: Boyfriend? Hot tub? Husband? Property? Stacy said: “I’d like a 51-49 split of all the goodies. Beau-Zeau already has his bundle, so I get the 51. It’s my idea. Fair is fair.”
by Margot Comstock
Halston Hammer, Stacy’s therapist, had had dreams of being a great and sexy detective, like a long ago one with who shared his name, and then, when he thought about the danger in detecting, he’d imagined himself a lawyer. He did okay in college and went on to law school. He did okay there too, he thought, but after failing thrice to pass the bar, and many sad nights and days of wondering what was the matter with him that he couldn’t succeed at anything, he went to a psychiatrist for help. He seemed to learn a lot from the man, almost entirely because the shrink was not terribly bright and Halston found he could analyze the shrink much better than the shrink could help him. That gave him courage. So he went back to school to become a psychotherapist. He was rather astonished when he found that he was pretty good at it.
Stacy was one of his early clients. But she didn’t want therapy; she wanted information, mostly about other people, their motivations, and how to manipulate them. Thanks to Stacy’s needs, he’d become good at these attributes in some kinds of people.
Stacy’s friend Cavanaugh had been tough, because Cav was very happy with himself, confident and easygoing. More of a problem was that Hal liked Cav, even though he didn’t clearly know why. It bothered him a bit that these days Stacy was looking to, well, get the better of Cav. But, Halston told himself it wasn’t his business to care.
Among Stacy’s colleagues, he became known as the guy who knows a guy. He didn’t quite know how that came about until he realized that he actually did know somebody whom Stacy would consider a valuable person to know. That person was Chet Beau-Zeau. The shrink didn’t know Beau-Zeau well (thank goodness), but they were acquainted.
Now Stacy wanted him to have his attorney set up an appointment for her with Beau-Zeau. Somehow out of the meeting, Stacy would get valuable land, convenient to her needs, which were vast and, Halston didn’t want to admit even to himself, probably not, um, kosher. He knew quickly that he didn’t want to do this, didn’t want any part of it. But what could he do? Sadly, he realized, Stacy was about his best client…. He had to do it.
On top of all this, he liked Cavanaugh (even if he wasn’t sure why), and he feared this deal would somehow be as bad for Cav as it was good for Stacy. Was there any way he could get out of it and not lose Stacy’s clientele?
Fair is fair, but only if it IS fair. The trouble with Stacy’s clever plan to take over the world with the help of Chet Beau-Zeau’s billions was that Beau-Zeau had already agreed to a plan for the use of his money, and on the very land that Stacy wanted for her project. Cavanaugh, thanks to his charming of Brooke Shields and her family, had met with the zillionaire and presented his plan for the land next to the drone site, his plan to create a new, large squash venue right there. There’d be room for other games too, even pickleball, all those smaller squash spinoffs. His enthusiasm, and the enthusiasm of his new Princeton alum friends, were winning. Stacy, disinterested in college loyalty, hadn’t bothered to learn that Beau-Zeau himself was a graduate of the New Jersey Ivy League orange, a school that had long ago boasted Albert Einstein among it’s staff.
Henry and Reid were slow waking from their drug-assisted wine naps. Neither was used to such a reaction to having a simple drink. Slowly, one after the other, they mumbled, “Stacy.” Why the hell would she do that? Reid looked at his watch: they’d slept through the night and well into the next morning. “Good grief.”
“What?” said Reid.
“Maybe she thought we wouldn’t remember,” said Hank.
Still a bit druggy, they just stood there.
“Shower,” Hank said. “You first; I’ll make coffee.”
Reid came out of the shower, refreshed, feeling better, but with his clothes a bit disheveled.
“You’re up,” he said with a kind of disheveled smile to match his garb.
Henry handed Reid a mug of coffee and dived into the shower; Reid smiled broadly. Then he took a seat and enjoyed the hot black until Henry came out.
“Feel better?” Reid asked.
“Much. How about you?”
“Sure, but I’ll feel a whole lot better when I understand just what’s going on.”
Neither of them moved, except to drink coffee.
“I’m pretty annoyed,” Reid said.
“In spades,” said Henry.
“What do we do now?” they said nearly in unison, and with a dry laugh.
“Well,” said Reid, “Bow to the lady?”
“No chance,” said Henry.
Reid gave a sardonic smile. “I’ll bet,” he said.
“Shit,” said Henry, and poured more coffee for them both..
Cav is on his way to a big return—but he’s beginning to see the greed of Stacy. He recognizes that all the arrangements favor her pockets, not his. But Cav is no fool and no pansy. He knows how to claim his due, and the physically generous but financially greedy woman, however sexy, won’t fool him. She may try, but Cav knows the ropes, and the law, even in the USA, and he’ll ensure his rightful share and jump on the next plane to Maori land if necessary. No, he’s no Maori, but he’s a kiwi who knows his way around. Leaving California won’t be necessary. Not at all.
He’ll see this through, he thinks, have lots of fun, and take his due with him. Or keep it with him here in the States. No need to move on.
But not quite yet. Just now, though, he’s responsible for the immediate futures of Finn and Winnifred--who prefers to be known as Fred the Red. And he thoroughly enjoys working with the kids.
Finn wandered in where the GAL was, curious to see more of the Mars stuff. He was drawn to the idea of Mars, although actually taking a trip there was terrifying, even while it was fascinating, when it drew him in, thrilled in the excitement of the thought. “I’d never dare do it though,” he said to himself. But his eyes were bright, his breathing short and his vision far away.
He found his dad.
“What do you think about Mars, Dad?”
Henry, still recovering from the strange night and partially lost day, said, “Not a whole lot; I think I’d put off the trip for a day or two.”
Finn chuckled. “No, I mean it. Do you think we’ll go to Mars one day? In my lifetime even?”
Realizing Finn was serious, at least truly interested, Henry took his time.
“Yes, I think we will…. Yes, likely even in your lifetime.”
“Wow. That’s scary. But … Wow.”
“You thinking of going, kiddo?”
Finn looked at him very seriously. “Maybe. Maybe.”
“Finn, that would be amazing. There’s lots of time to decide, don’t worry about that, but if you keep your interest, you might enjoy learning more about it. More about space flight, all that stuff. And if you keep being interested, maybe we’ll take a vacation to visit NASA.”
“Dad! That would be great! Even if I don’t decide to be an astronaut!”
Henry was thrilled. Not about Mars or space travel: just for Finn. He was so proud of him.
Finn was on his way out of the room, off to wherever kids go when they’re done with grownups for the moment.
The boy turned around.
“When you’re done with where you’re going, maybe you’d like to have a game of cards with me.”
“Cards?” Finn looked slightly aghast.
“Yeah. I was thinking you might like to learn to play Poker.”
“Really? Poker?” Big smile. “Sure, Dad. I’d like that! I wasn’t going anywhere special!”
“Let’s see what we’ve got for snacks in the kitchen, and we’ll have us an evening.”
by Steve Hufford
“Dad, that’s not fair. You said you had a good hand!”
Hank, looking down at his exposed hand, a pair of threes and assorted trash cards, replied,
“That’s right son, it’s not fair. But in poker, lying is called ‘bluffing’, and it’s a big part of the game.”
“Hmm. I’m not sure poker’s my game then,” said Finn.
“But the cards don’t lie, son. You can always ignore the talk and just remember the cards and the odds,” said Hank.
Such revelations aside, they had a good evening together with the cards, popcorn, and other snacks. Hank foresaw that it was only a matter of time before Finn began to turn into a teenager. Hollow leg. Growth spurt on the way! He already ate like a squash player.
And then, later that night, years passed in a moment. Finn’s dreamscape, shaped by thoughts of NASA and the lure of space, drew forth from his subconscious the full-grown form of a young man. The older Finn was intelligent, curious, dedicated to knowledge, and yet disciplined by the rigors of squash and the gym. He had his father’s compassion, his mother’s good looks, and was on the pathway towards Mars. An undergraduate engineering degree, with subsequent degrees in microbiology and artificial intelligence, had prepared Finn well as a candidate for NASA’s in-depth astronaut training.
Yet somehow he was now in a card game, playing with Dad, and other grownups. And he was winning. The cards kept coming his way. He rarely needed to bluff, and he had an unerring ability to read the other players’ tells. The tapping fingers and the forced laughs told him all he needed to know.
The game ended and devolved into a party. He was looking hard at a striking young woman, who looked back. She had beautiful red hair, wavy, yet controlled by barrettes in a style that looked European… no, more precisely, Nordic. He couldn’t say why, but he liked it. And she was tall. Almost as tall as he had become.
Then she left the party, as did he. The odd thing was the drone following her. It stayed just out of her sight, behind her peripheral vision and also above, as she walked. Finn felt some foreboding. She should know someone was spying on her. He ought to help her. The drone was up to no good, recording her actions, and transmitting them somewhere. It was creepy. He woke with a start, found he was still upstairs in bed, nine years old, and too tired to get up early.
The rest of his night passed smoothly, with dreams that left fewer images behind. By morning, all that remained was some sense of an attractive redhead, the lure of space, and lingering foreboding about a nefarious, hovering drone.
What remained with Reid was an abiding desire to get even. More than a tad annoyed at having been drugged, he felt as violated as one of Bill Cosby’s dates. He considered drugging Stacy in revenge, but Pellegrino, her beverage of choice, didn’t offer much flavor to conceal chemical tastes. Food would be the best way to get drugs into her system, yet she was always so careful about her caloric intake that he didn’t see much opportunity there. He definitely wasn’t adept enough with needles to pull off a quick injection.
No, the best way would be to have her seal her own fate. He had to trick her. And the drone was just the right tool. Reid knew what he had to do.
The big day finally arrived. Prior attempts to settle out of court hadn’t resolved anything. The land hadn’t changed hands, Neil Cavanaugh was still pressing charges against Hank, Stacy continued with her efforts to orchestrate outcomes to her financial advantage, and Reid was way too involved with all the players in the courtroom competition. The only good news was that Reid and Hank’s revenge was going to be excruciatingly humiliating for Stacy.
Having been both cuckolded and drugged, Hank had been eager to share with Reid the GAL recording of Stacy’s expressive moanings captured during her extracurricular activities with Cav. When it became clear to all in the court that Cav was likely to be awarded some recompense for his injury and his loss of past and future income, Stacy and Hank’s lawyer proposed the land deal as part of the inevitable award. But greedy Cav pushed back, against Stacy’s prior plan. He wanted a substantial cash payment in addition to the land, and Stacy herself hurriedly suggested introducing the GAL technology into the court proceedings so as to explain the actual commercial value of the proposed land deal. Just as Reid had hoped.
The bitch set herself up.
There was a little lawyerly back and forth about whether a drone demonstration was relevant to the proceedings. Judge Jolene, clearly interested in at least learning something from yet another injurious assault case, admitted the demo. The GAL 9000’s hovering, following the lawyer as he strolled the perimeter of the courtroom, with concurrent sound and image sent via Bluetooth to a large monitor quickly impressed the judge. What impressed her even more, thanks to Reid’s prior work with the drone’s memory storage, was the very loud audio clip that began the moment the demo ended.
“Cav, you dog. Ohhhh. Yesss…”
“…oh, Cav…” [murmur] “…oh…”
It went on and on, unmistakably uniting the plaintiff and one of the defendants in an extramarital affair and a brazen scheme to cheat Henry out of the land and out of any ownership interest in anything of value. Thanks to GAL 9000, the sex and the scheming were on full display.
Bang. Gavel down, case dismissed.
Rowan and her driven mom rarely gave up. The Princeton alums enjoyed proximity to her fame and mature beauty, and were exceptionally generous. And that’s how the GLA-PACS organization started and eventually succeeded, on land donated by Henry, with a squash program overseen by Reid, and even an educational curriculum for the underprivileged from greater LA – all focused on science, with mentors from the drone company right next door.
Finn, Winnifred, Rowan and her sister, Jethro, and a crowd of other youths grew to love the game. Kids and teenagers flowed through the GLA-PACS courts, honed their skills, and some found themselves on an alumni-smoothed pathway to playing at Princeton.
Best yet, the science classes were testing a new technology that could finally display the speed, grace, and athleticism of squash. With just a few adjustments, the facial recognition tracking embedded in GAL was redirected toward ball tracking. Hovering above mid-court, and moving out of the flight path as needed, the machine never lost contact with the speeding orb, giving viewers an unparalleled experience of the competition. A generation of inquisitive kids born with smartphones in their hands began to push the boundaries. Drones on the court first, and then on to other planets.
Hank and the GAL9000 guys made a bundle, and Finn was on his way to the stars.
“Life’s a Bitch”
by James Prudden
Yeah, great, but whatever happened to Stacy?
Stacy’s plans were thoroughly shot through, Swiss-cheesed by a pistol-packing muthuh called Fate, while Henry, or Hank, or whatever his name is, ended up fat and happy with no Stacy in sight. Henry dumped her right after Judge Jolene banged her gavel like a cudgel on the head of a miscreant, which is something she secretly loved doing. Banging her gavel that is. BANG, case dismissed! Satisfying, no?
There was something clarifying about the case that left Henry no longer in doubt about the best path for his family: dump Stacy in a nanosecond for being the narcissistic nutjob she is, and do so with alacrity, and maintain and strengthen his relationship with Finn, who he loved more than ever.
And things worked out pretty damn well for a while, thank you very much. Stacy had custody, but Henry got a place nearby and saw Finn regularly.
Finn didn’t grow up to be tall, but he did grow up to be a sinewy exemplar of a fit squash player, thanks to years of indulgences bestowed upon him by the GLA-PACS organization. The many hours of instruction on the game from some of the top coaches in the country, coupled with regular visits from orange-bedecked Princeton players and alumni, helped fire an innate drive to maintain discipline, shape his body and, ultimately, master the game. Finn, inexorably, climbed up the ladder of achievement and became a top player, widely courted by the best universities in the country. (Fred the Red, meanwhile, always big, kept getting bigger, eventually forcing semi-successful bariatric surgery that kept her off the courts but allowed her to indulge her unusual interest in polka dancing—but I digress….)
By the time Finn’s college days rolled around Princeton had fallen well off its perch as the country’s number-one educational destination, while Columbia had taken its place, both academically and in the sport of squash, at which point it had just enjoyed two undefeated seasons in a row. Finn had no trouble picking an obvious winner, shedding his ties to Princeton and choosing to don the light blue of a Columbia Lion instead. By the end of his freshman year he was already playing #2, and from the start of his sophomore year until he graduated he took the lead position, and the team’s captaincy.
Henry was abundantly proud of his son, even traveling across the country to watch him play in a few matches. They were undefeated all four seasons Finn was there, a feat all the more surprising because there were only two Egyptian guys on the team and all the rest were red-blooded Americans!
Finn graduated with a degree in computer engineering, with a specialty in digital visualization and enhancement, knowledge that proved valuable as several divergent schemes to transport humankind to Mars—all of which were hatched by a group of bilious billionaires, anxious to circumvent any governmental meddling—began, much to everyone’s surprise, to look promising. Finn got in on the ground floor.
While Finn was taking steps to ensure his success on and off the court, his dear mum was floundering. When the divorce from Henry was stamped final, she had clearly lost more than she had gained. She got half of their combined wealth, true, but because she was the one caught philandering she did not get any future payments. That was it, and like driving a car out of a dealership, from that moment on her wealth was in decline.
She also lost her job at the drone startup—the gal owners and designers of the GAL-9000 had been replaced by a band of over-confident guys, all of whom also doubled as jerks. Stacy belligerently nicknamed the company Drunkin’ Drone-nuts, perhaps because she had a budding sense of humor, but more likely because she herself had begun to focus on the joys of drink. Eschewing Pellegrino, she found alcohol, when liberally imbibed, proved balm for the soul, and some of the hurt from her precipitous fall dissipated magically away, at least for a while.
She realized for the first time in her life that her position was dire. The first thing she did was to go running to Reid, reasoning that he was a decent guy, always wanted to have her, his marriage to Elena was officially over, and, what the hell, at least they could amuse themselves playing squash.
And their first sexual encounter was indeed a wonderful experience, but before too long their relationship devolved into something closer to slapstick.
Bed sports were noteworthy for Stacy’s alcohol-fueled imagination getting the better of her, once falling off the bed nearly on her face while attempting a complicated position that as far as Reid could figure only increased the burn in his thighs, which was not the place where he would have directed more intensity of feeling. Once Stacy vomited before things could heat up; that sure sucked the romance out of the room. Often she just lay back and drooped her eyelids, a position not conducive to enhanced feelings of love.
Her diet suffered; she just liked to drink. Her weight yo-yoed, gaining an unfortunate 50 pounds not long after she first started going out with Reid, then plummeting as drink began to overtake just about all other pursuits, including eating. Her fitness suffered and she gave up squash.
When drunk Stacy would produce verbal darts that she would hurl at anyone around her, and there were plenty of nights during which Reid felt like a bad imitation of Saint Sebastian, shot through with arrows. It wasn’t too long before Reid’s nascent feelings of doubt grew to be an open wound of festering disgust. The relationship crumbled acrimoniously.
Finn grew aware of his mother’s troubles and distanced himself from her as much as good manners would allow. It helped that they were on opposite sides of the country. He tried to offer verbal support but nothing he said made a difference.
Throughout these events Stacy’s increasingly pickled, demented brain perseverated on the idea of applying some sort of coup de grace on the outstretched neck of either Henry, who she despised for his success, or Cav, whose continued insouciance had seemed to mock the gravity of her own existence.
Both men had had her at her height, when most alluring and most powerful, and both men had ultimately dismissed her. Henry, of course, had been the one who originally was going to be dismissed, but after Judge Jolene’s verdict—BANG!—Stacy was hopeful they could reconnect. No way that would happen….
And Cav felt that his time with Stacy, though a kindred spirit, ultimately had been a waste. Nice sex, stimulating conversations about how best to scam people, but after all that, nothing, so it was time to move on. Stacy’s calls originally went unanswered, but ultimately Cav told her the truth. Stacy slammed the phone down and let out a primordial scream. And then she poured herself a nice stiff one.
Now, a decade and a half after that fateful court decision, Stacy had been forced to move into one of those dark two-bedroom rental units that are liberally sprinkled on either side of the highways around inner Southern California. There to choke down another drink and plot her revenge. Revenge that mandated the death of Henry, or the death of Cav, or maybe even Reid, or what the hell, maybe all three at once.
Now wouldn’t that be something?, she mused. Her unfocused eyes, still a dazzling blue, grew clouded with hate….
by Chris Dec
“Hank! Give me my damned phone!” Stacy spun her head around, looking for the bottle of Johnny Walker.
“I am not Hank, Stacy.”
She threw an unseen object at Hank. “Hank, you...you… Finn, hand me the phone now!” An eight year-old Finn clutching a stuffed bear faded in a milky haze.
“I am not Finn, Stacy.”
“GET ME MY GOD DAMNED PHONE WHOEVER THE FUCK YOU ARE!”
“Stacy, I am Doctor Penemann. No one else is here. Stacy, you agreed that you would not be allowed use of your cell phone when you came here. It is safe at home with your son. The next couple of days are going to be challenging for you, but we have methods and medicines that will help you. If you ask for a phone, you will not get one. We will be here for you through the entire process, and as frightened and lonely as you may feel right now, I promise you, you will get through this and you will be okay. Try to get some sleep now.”
“Stop telling me what to do, Hank, you asshole… get me my phone! Please get… phone…”
* * *
“Finn… phone. Your dad.” Jethro pressed Finn’s cell inside his clay-like fingers, and set a glass of green juice on his nightstand.
Usually up at six, energetic and ready to go, Finn could not clear his head this morning, and at 9:30, the sun warming his face and the aroma of his favorite Sumatran dark roast in the air, he could barely gather the energy to lift his head to talk.
“Dad…” he muffled into the plastic.
“She’s going to be fine, Finny. She’s in a good facility. He’s going to be fine, too, eventually. Have you eaten breakfast yet? I can pick you up, take you to The Sport and we can get super smoothies… you love those.”
“Mmf. Talk. Later. Dad.”
The horrific events from the weekend were still a blur in Finn’s mind, but his calf still stung where the bullet more than grazed his skin, bringing him back to wakefulness, grounding him in the very real light of day. He felt heavy with emotions, and leaden with exhaustion at the memory of watching his wildly drunk mother pointing a gun at everyone, including her own son. Had she meant to fire… at him? What level of disintegration of her life could have sent her to this hell, and why hadn’t anyone seen it coming… or cared? Why hadn’t he? Life wasn’t being fair to any of them, right now. But then he thought he needed to be stronger than the self pitying child he was acting like, and pulled himself up out of the mountain of blankets, drained his glass of green juice, yanked his clothes off, and sprinted into the shower, where he felt the restoring effects of hot water on his small, fine-muscled body. He winced when the water pulled at the gauze and tape, which came off in the water, pulling his leg hairs and revisiting the small gash in his flesh.
His expertly fitted GAL-9000 hovered, blue-toothed to the podcast of Quincy Jones at the Monterey Jazz Fest, sending the mellow tones to the shower speaker.
He pondered in the soft trumpet infused steam what could have been: a very different outcome. He came out luckier than Cav, who took one shot that pierced his right arm and splitting a muscle nearly in half… and the other, straight through the right femur, shattering it. If Cavanaugh thought his pro squash instruction career was over after he landed in a hot tub, well, that was just a small taste of what life could become. Poor guy would still be doing physical therapy this time next year. But he was alive. In the hot flow of the rainfall shower head, Finn actually shivered, closed his eyes mournfully, then shot them wide open again, shut off the water, and grabbed a towel.
Jethro checked his watch, wondering if it was going to be okay to leave Finn like this. When he saw him, minutes later, refreshed and invigorated by sleep, shower and juice, and some sort of resolve, he was reassured. Finn started getting dressed with purpose.
“There is nothing to do right now, Finn. You can’t see her, or call her. Any arrest, booking of charges, hearing, trial, all that, has to wait until after detox is complete… and that’s not for four more weeks… so what say you and me, you know, go see a movie, or…”
“It’s okay. You can go… I know you have an interview later… be at your best, bro… and Jethro, thanks, buddy. I am fine, really… think I’ll call my Dad back.”
He full body clamped his old friend in a hug and patted both shoulders for luck, like men do. He then propelled Jethro to the door and out into the foyer with a hasty wave. The trumpet wailed softly to a sad minor note and faded.
Finn picked up the phone and punched in the familiar number.
“I’ve got to talk to you, as soon as you have time.”
“ Right now. Let’s do it. What’s up, son? Anything wrong? You did get your mom all set at Pinehurst, and…”
“Uncle Reid, everything’s okay, nothing’s wrong. I just need your help making something happen. You know I still have some shares in Mom’s old company. I want to buy more stock, but not under my name, yet. You can contact some of the holders, can’t you, who will sell to me when the time comes. I want you to help me take over the company. I want majority control of it.”
“Uhmm… okay. Finn, just stop and think… maybe you should give it a little time to, well… have you thought about operations there? I know you know the technical end of that business like the back of your hand, Finny, but since your Mom left there, things changed a lot. There is high-powered stuff going on over there: government contracts, overseas manufacturing and foreign investors. I am afraid that without the right CEO skilled in juggling all that, well, you will drown. You just went through…”
“Uncle Reid, I have to get the company back into the family. Let me know what I have to do to make that happen. Call me. Okay, I have to go now and call my dad.”
Finn punched in another number, reading from a scrap of paper.
“Cav…how are you doing? I know you’re on some heavy-duty meds, guy… but don’t talk, just listen. Cav I want you to think about something while you are there in bed. Consider not pressing further criminal charges or any civil charges against Mom. I can give you money, and soon, a lot of it… plus I will take your students for you and just have them keep writing checks to your name. I’ll deposit them in your account. I can start today… but she cannot go to prison for that long. She won’t make it, Cav. Look, I want to take her away from everything when she’s back, take her on a long vacation, and a rest, all that. I promise you, Cav, I will make it up to you somehow, make it up in full. Are you listening? Hello?”
“The gentleman is nodding, sir. I am the floor nurse. I am going to have to insist you end your conversation now. He needs to rest.”
by Pierre Bastien
Stacy stared straight ahead, muttering to herself.
“I’ll get ‘em,” she said, to no one in particular. “I’ll get ‘em all.”
“Who will you get, Stacy?” asked a voice.
Stacy looked up and her eyes came into focus on Dr. Dolores Penemann, who was sitting across the table from her.
“Who the hell are you?” demanded Stacy.
“I’m Dr. Penemann, your drug treatment counselor. This is our third session together.”
Stacy took in the doctor’s face — wavy gray hair tucked neatly into a white headband, framing a pale, freckled, slightly wrinkled face set with dull green eyes. Dr. Penemann looked like the serious type. She stared back at Stacy, unsmiling.
Ignoring the good doctor, Stacy took in the scene a bit more. The table between them was a simple, white, prison-issue folding table. The only thing on it was Dr. Penemann’s yellow notepad. The walls were cinderblock, painted an institutional beige color, the floor a plain concrete. A large mirror took up most of one wall.
It was coming back to Stacy now. She looked down at her hands and wasn’t surprised to see a pair of handcuffs binding her wrists together. An orange prison jumpsuit completed the look.
“Why am I here?” growled Stacy, even though she remembered the answer now, in this moment of clarity.
“You’re in the Dalton Correctional Facility,” replied Dr. Penemann. “You’re in jail,” she said with finality. “You’re here for court-ordered substance abuse counseling. You need to get cleaned up before you progress through the court system.”
“Do I have to have these handcuffs on?” asked Stacy.
“Yes,” answered Dr. Penemann. “For now anyway.”
“Why’s that, doc?” asked Stacy, staring at her with a mischievous grin.
“Well for starters, this is the first time we’ve met that you haven’t tried to attack me.”
Stacy, still grinning, tensed her arms suddenly, pretending to lunge toward Dr. Penemann. The quick movement and the clattering of handcuffs were meant to frighten her, but Dolores regained her composure quickly, then cooly raised an eyebrow at Stacy. The two women stared at each other.
Eventually, Dolores spoke. “You’ve been through a tough spell, Stacy, but you’ll get through this soon enough. You need to start thinking about what you’ll do once you make it through.”
“I already know what I’m gonna do,” replied Stacy, as a smirk grew back across her face. “I’m gonna get ‘em.”
“Who are you going to get, Stacy?”
“Henry. Reid. Cavanaugh. All of ‘em.”
Finn strode down the sidewalk, headed to an important meeting. He was dressed in a crisp gray suit, white shirt, red tie, and white pocket square. He was still young, but he knew how to look polished. Finn had seen many go-getters and various glitterati pass through the GLA-PACS courts over the years, and he had studied how they dressed themselves. Finn may have owned only one suit, but damn it looked good on him.
Finn arrived early at the office building, a three-floor converted warehouse with exposed brick and floor-to-ceiling windows. He checked in at the front desk.
“Can I help you?” asked a receptionist with a pencil tucked behind his left ear.
“I’m visiting Red Planet Capital — Chet Beau-Zeau.”
The receptionist signed in Finn, handed him a clip-on VISITOR badge, and directed him up to the third floor.
“Thanks”, said Finn with a warm smile, as he discreetly pocketed the badge. Instead of taking the elevator, Finn bounded up the stairs, and a few minutes later he found himself back in the office of Chet Beau-Zeau, stock picker extraordinaire.
Chet Beau-Zeau, or Chet, as his friends called him, made his first billion over fifteen years ago. He’d gone through a rough patch during the Obama years, but came roaring back in the tumultuous time after that, making an enormous bet on renewable fuels just before a huge boom in that sector.
Chet got to know Finn through the GLA-PACS organization, which Chet had bankrolled in the early days. Chet was impressed by young Finn’s fighting spirit on the squash court and poise off it. Chet took Finn under his wing. He liked Finn on a personal level, and felt a bit remorseful that he’d screwed Finn’s mom out of a payday in her attempted drone company land deal. But there was something else: Finn was as obsessed with Mars as he was.
“Welcome back, Finn,” said Beau-Zeau. “Please, have a seat. Tell me, how did the conversations go?”
“I think they went well,” said Finn, as he sat down in the leather chair across from Chet. “I asked Reid to track down some additional holders of GAL company stock. I think he’ll do it.”
“That’s good Finn. If I’m going to acquire a controlling stake, we’ll need those extra shares. And did you speak to Mr. Cavanaugh?”
“Yes I did. Right now he can’t even string a sentence together, but I planted the idea in his head. I’ll have to keep working on him.”
“Good man,” replied Beau-Zeau. “The last thing we need is that guy bringing a lawsuit, right as we go public with our plan.”
“I know,” said Finn. “I’ll get him to come around.”
“Everything’s going to work out. I feel it. Stay on top of them both.”
“I will,” replied Finn. Sensing there was nothing left to discuss, Finn rose to leave.
“Finn, wait,” said Beau-Zeau. “How are you doing? Your mom is in a difficult place right now. She’s going to be okay soon enough. Are you hanging in there yourself?”
“I’m fine,” said Finn. “I’m worried about her, but we’re on the right track here. She’ll be okay, and so will I.”
“All right,” said Beau-Zeau. “Let’s talk again next week. Call if you need anything in the meantime.”
Finn walked out, buzzing. He was so close to his dream. Chet Beau-Zeau was determined to bankroll the first manned mission to Mars. And Finn was going to lead that mission. The plan had been developed in secret, and they were going to announce it soon. Finn had been working his whole life towards this goal. His studies, his athletics, his astronaut training with NASA — it was all leading up to this point.
There was one final piece. Years ago, Chet had invested some of his personal fortune in the GAL drone company. True, he’d helped organize his Princeton buddies to set up GLA-PACS right on the land the GAL people wanted for their facility. A bit of fun, that was. Still, he kept up polite relations with his GAL neighbors over the years, and took notice as they grew. At one point they had expanded so quickly that they found themselves in a funding crunch, and Chet seized the opportunity to make a substantial investment. Not enough to control the company, but enough to win a board seat.
As he exited the building, Finn punched the speed dial for Reid.
“Hi Uncle Reid,” said Finn cheerily, “just checking in. Have you had any luck tracking down holders of Mom’s old company?”
“Yes,” answered Reid, “as a matter of fact I have. One of my clients has a decent position that she’s looking to unload. Finn, I’m not sure this is a good idea though. Do you really want to be taking all this on? Especially considering everything that’s happening with your mom.”
“Yes Uncle Reid, I’m more than sure. Send me your client’s contact details — I’ll be in touch.” Finn hung up.
It was his mom who’d floated the idea, way back when, of using one of the GAL drones to map the surface of Mars. The technology had evolved — now the latest military-grade GAL models were even better suited to the task — but it was her vision playing out.
Finn turned his attention to Cavanaugh, dialing his number.
“Cav, it’s Finn.”
“Mmmh,” replied Cavanaugh.
“Listen,” began Finn. “I’ve been talking to Mr. Beau-Zeau. He wants to make sure you’re taken care of, considering all the years you’ve worked for him at GLA-PACS. Here’s the deal: he can arrange it so you get you a slice of the drone company. Trust me, you want to do this — the value of your shares will skyrocket once the world learns that the company’s drones will essential to the Mars mission. But you’ve got to do one thing.”
“Mmmh?” said Cav.
“You’ve got to make sure all charges against my mom are dropped.”
Bound for Mars by A.J. Kohlhepp
Cavs had learned long before that revealing one’s actual condition in a competitive situation – be it a professional squash match, a “friendly” game of billiards, or a personal injury lawsuit – did little to advance one’s cause. Better to play it close to the vest, to push out an unending stream of disinformation, and to quietly gather one’s faculties for the big push.
Stacy was the opposite in this regard, which was one of the elements that initially drew the two together. (Their formerly frequent adventures between the sheets did not always demonstrate these individualistic approaches, as the horizontal tango tended to bring each dancer more in sync with the other’s rhythms.) What you saw was what you got with Stacy, and she had always relied on a powerful presence to seize momentum at the start of the race or case or match or melee, then gradually increase her throttle-hold over the course of the competition. Her momentary descent into madness had made this personality style problematic, especially when it came to interactions with psychiatric nurses, parole officers and PTA matriarchs, but in the end it served her well.
Henry and Reid both tended to inhabit a kind of middle ground in this regard. Both had cultivated a degree of reserve through their business endeavors; both understood that revealing too much, too early, could undermine one’s position, but both also knew that being genuine, or at least coming across that way, was essential to building trust among their clients. Henry’s signature move was the big deal, Reid’s the small tip, and both depended on a perception of trustworthiness. So each cultivated a mien of openness that masked a subtle gathering of data points in day-to-day operations.
Finn had tried to learn from this quartet of adults omnipresent in his life, recognizing and integrating those strategies that seemed useful and resisting those that seemed counter-productive. And the young founder, CEO and chief pilot of Interplanetary Luxury Lines had succeeded to an improbable and impressive extent.
“Let’s buckle up, folks,” he thought confidently into the language dissemination sensors woven into his eyesight enhancers. As he did so, that same sentence, adjusted slowly in terms of tone and timing to suit the mood and mindset of each recipient, entered the audio integration and modulation strands of each of the passengers’ ear chips. This adorable archaism on his part – there was absolutely no buckling involved on the ILL’s Mars Mover – was appreciated by the quartet of soon-to-be senior citizens on board. His co-pilot (and co-founder / COO) Winnifred simply selected and sent the eyerolling emoji holograph (known within the A.I. crowd, which was by this point completely computerized, as an e-hole) as her virtual reply.
Instead of buckling up, of course, the passengers settled in – to their pods, that is. With the magic of SATS, or the sleep-acceleration / time-suspension protocol, each would awaken in sixth months feeling as if they had gotten a good night’s sleep. Each was able to program the perceived length of slumber, style of bedding, type(s) and duration of dreams, etc. (It hadn’t taken the engineers long to realize that their original one-sleep-fits-all approach was not ideal, and at half a million bucks per journey, the clientele could reasonably expect a satisfactory slumber on the way.)
Finn and Winnifred could have opted for the same transit modality as their passengers, with the caveat being instantaneous awakening alerts if things begin to go amiss with the mission. By mutual consent, however, they both elected a modified approach, being roused at one-week increments to check the instruments, correspond with the lunar dispatchers, and play yet another of their ongoing series of squash matches. Finn and Winnifred, like Nadal and Federer a generation earlier, had been able to sustain their racket rivalry long after the rest of the world had turned its attention to younger stars.
The on-craft “court,” if you wished to call it that, was an engineering marvel in its own right. Given the obstacles presented by interplanetary squash, the science-and-sports team had resorted to their full bag of tricks. Space limitations of the craft necessitated a virtual experience, though each competitor was still required to “move” within the space of his/her sensory skeleton and to replicate the gestures of hitting the holographic ball into theoretical space. The “ball” was also capable of speeding up or slowing down in holographic flight to allow, or to evade, countering swings by the opponent. The team had even allowed the users to choose the “era” in which to compete in any given contest: tiny wooden frames and hardballs on a virtual century North American court; larger composite weapons with softballs on a century international court; or the laser-and-leather wands favored to sling the smooth new meteor sphere around a contemporary interplanetary court.
In the end, everybody got pretty much what they had wanted all along, regardless of what they deserved. Cavs had been signed to direct rackets & recreation, or R & R, at the soon-to-be opened MO-PACS: the Martian Orbital – Princeton Alumni Center for Sports. The center had been bankrolled by the great and powerful Chet Beau-Zeau, who transferred his considerable terrestrial assets through Reid’s firm into more space-directed assets.
Reid, meanwhile, had filed for 403-B status for Elite Retreat, his successful not-for-profit start-up with Stacy. They had begun to offer counseling and support to the large numbers of high-powered Los Angelenos who had lost their positions, and their sanity, as a result of the Californian Secession initiated by the ageless Jerry Brown early in the Trump Regime’s third five-year term. Although Reid and Stacy never moved their partnership beyond the professional level, each took comfort in the proximity of an old friend and in the frequency of their interactions.
Henry had the inside track on the first-ever interplanetary time-share at the brand new Martian condo complex. He had begun the process of updating the name of the region to CA-Tharsis, thus echoing the origins of the genesis of this Martian mission and the new red soil it had taken root in. The site for construction was the massive summit of Olympus Mons – Mars. Also known as OMM, the mountain complex was being billed, more or less accurately, as “The Highest Address in the Solar System.” Drone technology had accelerated at such a pace that individual patrons, and their luggage (including their ludicrously light squash rackets), could be conducted one by one to the landing pods within their own proprietary aerial chutes.
You still needed to get people into Martian orbit, of course, and this was where Finn and Winnifred’s venture paid off in spatial spades. Thus we see the four principals of this narrative – Reid and Stacy and Cavanaugh and Henry, sometime lovers and litigants, friends and foes -- preparing to enter SATS mode in their pods, on the way to Mars, for their first-ever site visit to the brave new world they had helped to create (and to market).
And how did it come to pass that all of these seemingly discordant desires and conflicting (and conflicted) characters came into such unforeseen alignment? That, my friends, is a story for a whole ‘nother chapter.
by Sean Hanlon
Cavanova cried into his beer, and in the bubbles and the tears he saw a vision of the long ago: The Lord of Ugly Things. That is the Maori name for the biggest bug on earth. Also known as the tree weta, the Lord of Ugly Things is seen only in New Zealand and only after the Sun goes down. The Sun was down when Cav hopped onto a Maori maiden and pleasured her beneath a kauri tree until the Lord bit him in the ass. The tingling of the beer & tear foam on his upper lip reminded him of her hysterical delight.
He now allowed that the Lord’s bite was nothing as compared to the bite Fred the Red had taken out of his Princeton squash emporia on Earth and Mars. Determined as he was that the best and the brightest should reign supreme, Cav had recruited Darwood Dirk to be his chairman of the board. Dirk was tall, dark, handsome and rich. If his squash game was wanting his swimming credentials were impressive as Dirk had been captain of the Princeton Men’s Swimming Team in the long ago. Cavanova figured that the members of his clubs on Earth and Mars would delight in squashing the one-time swimming star and for a few years they did just that but soon after Finn graduated from Princeton he let Fred know that Dirk had been the mastermind of a troll-a-thon that had caused quite a scandal back in the day: “wetem2getem” subjected the Princeton Women’s Swiming Team to rude, crude and lewd remarks that were circulated online. Dirk had trolled a photograph of one lady swimmer on a bad hair hair as an illustration of his text:
“She seems relatively simple and probably inexperienced sexually, and so I decided missionary would be her preferred position.”
Fred’s online account of this caused Cav’s calamities as his Princeton alumni squash courts on Earth and Mars were boycotted by women and picketed by missionaries. He may have coped with the pickets but the boycott was his undoing for some Princeton men play squash so they can be with women of robust stripe, and a lesser number of Princeton men are attracted to such men. Their sudden aversion to his courts were another factor in Cav’s collapse, just when things were going so going so well with the lady lovers he had boasted in a life crowded with incident.
* * *
Finn and Fred the Red were flown by Chet Beau-Zeau’s bodyguard to the summit of Olympus Mons where the High Tower of Cramazon, Inc. rose above the red expanse of an otherwise barren Mars. It had been years since these squashlings had met face-to-face, though they Skyped for an hour or so whenever the business of their Interplanetary Luxury Lines required their attention. Together again after all these years, they checked one another out in an unobtrusive way as the shuttle closed in on Mars: Finn was taller than he used to be; and Fred had lost a few pounds by retooling the dinner break from her moonlighting as the viral journalist who had laid Cavanaugh low. Whereas formerly she had filled her brain with Facebook and her face with Pizza, she now feasted on the heart-healthy hopes and dreams of amateur athletics by playing coed pickup basketball at the Yam Street Y in New York City. There the guys prized her size on the court and in the sack.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that the scanty garments of basketball allow men to slyly ogle women working up a sweat.
After body scanning passengers, the bodyguard led them into The Stargate, a cavernous chamber of the High Tower with a floor like the surface of the moon and a dome like the starry sky. Beau-Zeau greeted them beneath The Little Dipper, his eyes drawn to shirts he supposed were for sale at the gift shops of their interplanetary enterprise. He noted with satisfaction that Finn’s garment bore the image of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon, but was mystified by Fred’s blouse. Her garment bore the image of Katherine Johnson, a celestial navigator at NASA who calculated the trajectory that put Neil in position to take his famous step. Beau-Zeau said:
“Let’s see what you’ve got.”
Finn handed his host the remote control to the selfie drone that Fred took out of a backpack that also produced a three-pack of Dunlop Pro squash balls. She identified the balls as Globular Specimens #1, 2 and 3 while dropping 1 and 3 to the floor, handing 2 to her host with this request: “Our silent partner said you should slime this with your precious bodily fluids: maybe muss it up with your arm pit or spit on it. Any kind of bodily fluid will do. Whatever is up to you.”
Beau-Zeau blew his nose on Globular Specimen #2 and dropped it to the floor, watching with amusement as it bounced in and around the craters of the Moon before settling down. Beau-Zeau directed the selfie drone around and about The Little Dipper, around and about the scattered balls. Finn said: “Our silent partner has instrumented this model of the GAL 9000 with bionic filaments that collect data as they make contact with the globes. The data will be transmitted to our lab on Earth for analysis and our analysis will be relayed to you by way of a secure Twitter account.”
Fred advised Beau-Zeau to hover over the orbs for upwards of a minute each. Like a fisherman casting baited hook and line, the billionaire directed the GAL 9000 to an orb beneath Orion’s Belt and unfurled the filaments from the belly of the drone. The undulating threads caressed Globular Specimen #1 as an octopus might caress its catch. After more than a minute of this, Beau-Zeau directed the drone to perform the same operation on Globular Specimen #2 and then on #3. After the passage of something less than fifteen minutes, the Twits reported back:
#1 — Globe composed of plasticized petrochemicals.
#2 We are not alone! Globe composed of plasticized petrochemicals colonized by bacteria associated with the nasal emissions of intelligent life.
#3 — Globe composed of plasticized petrochemicals.
Finn made the case for life on Venus by presenting Beau-Zeau with a paper published by John A. Ball of Harvard University. Ball address the Fermi Paradox: if there are out there somewhere, then where is everybody? Some respond that everyone is nowhere because there are no aliens. Ball responds that aliens may be watching us for entertainment purposes and have decided not to feed or otherwise disturb the animals. He quoted Ball’s scholarly view:
“The zoo hypothesis predicts that we shall never find them because they do not want to be found and they have the technological ability to insure this.” Fred chimed in: “To me that’s just another way of saying that God is a cosmic couch potato and we are his cable TV.”
She quickly directed a nicely spliced boaster at Beau-Zeau’s billions, the boaster being a killer shot whether fired in squash, love or high finance. “We now know that we are the only life on Mars but the universe must be crawling with life if it we find some on Venus.” Fred added: And the GAL 9000 can tell you whether it’s toe jam or belly button fuzz.”
“You bet. Twits to and from Venus and Mars by way of Earth should take somewhere between thirteen to ninety-five minutes, depending on how the planets are aligned. Bio-analysis by our lab takes another ten to twenty minutes, depending on the complexity of the sample, so if you want to get the drop on a Venusian rock, it could maybe be four or five hours before you know if there’s anything squiggling on it.”
Beau-Zeau studied the Twits. “Okay, fine. How much?”
Finn attempted a a glower he hoped would add a tincture of menace to the modesty of his speech. “Ten million each upfront for Winifred and myself. Twenty million upfront for our silent partner and his technology.”
“That’s adds up to forty million pesos?”
“Forty million in dollars and stock in Cramazon Corp, the split between the two to be decided at closing time. That’s a mere bag of shells to a guy like you if a guy like you wants to discover life on Venus.”
“Rhymes with penis?”
“Hip, hip, hooray!”
* * *
Their silent partner was Reid and Reid was the stalking horse of Mealon Usk who had parlayed $4.9 billion in U.S. government grants, loans and credits into a dominant position in the burgeoning field of industrial aromatics. He and his engineers had digitized the nosen of a beagle and had assigned its powers of discovery and discernment to the filaments he hoped would make Venus an outpost of his domain. These were the filaments that had fondled the phlegm on Globular Specimen #2 and these were the filaments that Usk & Reid with Finn & Fred planned to deploy for their own design: Beau-Zeau would give them $40 million in cash and stock for the use of a juiced up GAL 9000 while they put the PAL 9000 to work.
The PAL 9000 was an offspring of the GAL with superior aromatic capabilities when it comes to sniffing out life on planets of the near abroad.
As he neared his moments of triumph, revenge and pecuniary excess, Reid could not help but wallow once more in the muck of his grievances before they were washed away, the better to inspire awe in those who had abused him. When first he lost Stacy’s love to Henry, he had consoled himself by devoting his freshman English term paper at Princeton to The Pond of Despond in The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan as where “fears, and doubts and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place.” And when Reid later lost Stacy’s love to Cavanaugh, he consoled himself with Tom Waits and the Blues Down Under where “the girls down by the strip-tease shows go Waltzing Matilda.” Misery loves company.
Blues begone! Reid & Usk with Finn & Fred had sealed a deal with a Russian oligarch who had agreed to deliver their PAL 9000 to Venus before Beau-Zeau his GAL 9000. The oligarch would, of course, share in the glory that would attend their being the first to discover life on another world. Then would Fermi would turn over in his grave. Then would Beau-Zeau flip his lid. Then would Stacy wish she had taken Reid to heart.
The Usual Suspects
by Margot Comstock
Reid was delighted with his recent--and very lucrative-- arrangement with the incomparable Mealon Usk; Reid might not be top man on the totem pole, but he was there and moving forward. The addition of Finn and Fred the Red made an unbeatable complement, he thought. He was happy to be part of the move to occupy Mars, oh, too bad if it was a little chilly there. They had stocked up on warmness, clothes, heaters, lots of ways.
More pride came to Reid when he thought about the comeuppance that would fall to Beau-Zeau when he realized the GAL 9000 he’d just acquired was already passe, that the new Pal 9000 already ran rings around the Gal and her contemporaries. Fortunately, Beau-Zeau was so excited about his plans for Mars that he dismissed these annoyances.
Reid’s secret was that, while Usk, Finn, and Red were hot to land on Mars, occupy that planet and build it up, Reid’s goal was even farther: Reid had his heart set on Venus. Yes, it would be hot, but that could be dealt with. He’d already begun studying how to live in very hot climate.
The problems increased, whichever destination they’d choose, Reid knew. And returning from Venus might not be possible…. Maybe Venus wasn’t feasible. He’d have to learn more. If Venus wasn’t doable, he’d be happy with Mars.
Wiser hearts (should any be found) would strike more welcoming ground (if such was to be found in the immediately available Universe). Flinn sat comfortably with an ice-cold Bourbon in hand, enjoying a mental panorama of good, exciting things that were soon to happen in his life. Fred was across the room collecting hors d’oeuvres and chips and salsa to enhance the cocktail hour. Finn love the Bourbons Fred made; her hors d’oeuvres, not so much, at least not always….
Still, she was a good kid; actually a better woman now that they weren’t so often at odds.
Fred was possible more excited about their plans to Venus than Finn was. He was very aware of the dangers possible in this adventure, life and death at risk. But he’d studied all the contingencies; nothing was certain--except that it would be exciting. Beyond that, unknown.
Fred, on her part, was in a dilemma, although she wasn’t letting it show. In fact she wasn’t upset by it; but she had no idea what she would do about it. Fred and Finn had a good relationship in many ways, even put up with the long-term edge that had never totally gone away. But unexpected things do happen when you’re making other plans, as a very wise man once said. This time, it was serious (although thinking of it often made Fred chuckle.) Last week, she had realized she was pregnant. What to do? Might be obvious to many people. But not to Fred. She wasn’t young, she never thought she’d get pregnant, never planned to; but now that she was, she wanted the baby.
So, she thought, could the baby go with them to Mars? Why not? Er, probably a lot of folks would think she was crazy. What if she just didn’t tall anyone? Hmmm. So she kept her news to herself, and decided not to worry about it until she had to.
At first Beau-Seau had been furious at the scam (as he saw it) Finn and his friends had done. But he had a powerful liking for the Gal 9000, and he had not yet learned of the Pal 9000. The money wasn’t really an issue to Beau-Seau; he’d more than he could imagine ever needing, plus he was intrigued with Finn’s plans, as long as he didn’t have to go with them. So, declaring to himself that he’d avoid those people in the future, he returned to his current schemes.
Mealon Usk took a different tack. Though comparable to Beau-Zeau in regard to their holdings, Usk had no use for the man. Usk was excited about the trip to Mars (and would Mercury be possible too? He thought that unlikely; it was closest to the sun and likely extremely hot. Still….) but. despite his initial excitement, he wasn’t sure about actually going on their wild trip. Unless...he thought…unless I could design, and build, the ship. Now, that was a hell of a good idea. Usk was absolutely convident of his ability to build vehicles. Okay, cars, earthly cars, had been bis expertise. Usk knew he could do it. Best.
He would go to NASA and offer his services in exchange for learning everything they could teach him about building space ships.
The NASA folks were well aware of Usk and, despite the vast difference between vehicles and their requirements, a contingent of them thought it would be interesting, a learning experience for both Usk and them, and aldo damn fun.
When Reid heard through the greapevine about Usk and the NASA plan to teach him about making spaceships, Reid begged to sit in. Because of his role in the planned flight to Mars, NASA and Usk welcomed him.
Reid was super excited, and called Finn as soonas he could. At first Finn laughed; when Reids response was silence, Finn realized Reid was serious.
“Reid, that’s great! What a good idea! You’ll be able to help us a lot that way too, with all you learn, keep us up to snuff too,” Finn said. “Good going, man!”
Reid smiled broadly. “I’m really glad you think so, kid. I hope I can help a lot!”
“You always do; you’re my true uncle, Reid.”
Reid had not entered Stacy’s mind--or heart--in a long time. Her kid did, Cav did just a little, and Henry. She felt a little sad about Henry; but not much: Stacy didn’t do sad.
In a way she was a different person since she got clean. But, dear reader, do not fear: she was still, still, Stacy.
After all the troubled time, she’d gone back to the squash court. She practiced regularly. She commandeered opponents. She played them until she beat them regularly and then dropped them. She ate regularly and she didn’t drink until she felt fine without.
She slept alone and liked it. She only say people she liked, and there were very few.
Finn was who she liked best. But he was with that girl most of the time, and she didn’t like Fred.
She got her information about the trips to other planets by osmosis, as she saw it. She had no interest in going. She was proud of Finn but wished he weren’t going; nevertheless, she was proud of him.
She was only happy, if you could call it that, when she was playing squash, or something like it.
Sometimes she didn’t sleep well; past annoyance would worry her. One such night, she called Cav.
“What was your game?” she asked when he answered.
“What was your game?” she repeated.
“Squash,” he said…..”And other games. What’s up?”
“You’re a bastard. But sort of fun for a while.”
“Where are you? Want to come and see me?”
But Stacy had hung up.
So much had gone bad for Cav. He new he was a bit— well, quite a bit--older than he had been. But he wasn’t, well, old. Fifty wasn’t “old,” for heaven’s sake.
Still, he felt old. He wondered if people who lost all their money instantly felt old. Maybe.
Cav shook himself.
“Mate, what are you doing? Get off it!”
After a couple of minutes, he got up, put on a good jacket, and headed for a pub that had games.
The pub was brightly lit on the outside. Inside, the bar was dimmer, just right really. This place had Anchor Steam on Tap, and Cav ordered one. He sat at the bar for a wile sipping his beer. Feeling a bit more alive, he ordered another and took it with him to the gaming area.
There were a bunch of guys playing some game, putting down a ten--or was it a twenty?--and sat down nearby to watch. Pretty soon, he knew the game. He put down a twenty, watched a minute, and took a turn.
An hour later, Cav had more than 50 dollars, despite having “lost” two games. He took a seat where he could watch some more, ordered dinner--lamb, as he was a little homesick--another drink.
After the good meal and a few more games, he felt better than he had in a long time.
He said good by to the guys he’d played with, dropped another 20 on the table, smiled, and headed home.
Maybe life could be good after all, he thought. Even when you’re old.
Just as he was reaching his place, his cel rang.
It was Stacy.
Chapter 22 – My Favorite Martian by Steve Hufford “Cav, I’m so sorry. For everything…” “Stacy?” “I’ve been up all night, missing you, and regretting so much. All those games…” She burst into tears for good effect, recalling how useful they had been to unman Cav on more than one occasion. “Ah, c’mon Stace…” Her
sly smile was beautiful in its way, even as she pushed out another sob
for his benefit. She knew she would be more than his match once they
were reunited and face to face. Proximity, perfume and her curves would
work their ineluctable magic. Cav, always her favorite Kiwi, was no
competition, but he would surely meet her needs once again. Fred,
meanwhile, was learning about the needs of early pregnancy. There were
some nauseating times when she just needed quiet and rest; and others
when she felt an urgent prompting to scarf down some slightly unusual
food groups. What was up with that? Perhaps her body manifesting it’s
own wisdom to obtain an essential trace element needed by her baby? Regardless,
she managed to keep Finn in the dark with some modest subterfuge,
claiming her increased appetite must have come from the extra workouts
she was beginning in preparations for… The Trip! The
prospect of a completely new life ahead, and the amazing gift of
carrying new life within, put her over the top each day. She was so
ebullient and glowing that people would have started to wonder and
talk, were it not for the fact that the excitement was building for
everyone in her immediate circle. Fred
and Finn had been working long hours with Reid, Mealon, and the NASA
team to lay out the parameters of their venture. And the NASA team
members were so deferential to Mealon, it was almost funny. Years of
tight budgets had given them strong incentive to brownnose any
billionaires who wanted to bankroll interplanetary manned flights. “Mr.
Usk, can I get you a coffee?” and “Mr. Usk, would you like to see some
options for doing just that?” were frequent refrains. Mealon
was very happy, thrilled to bring his design skills to the task, yet
Finn and Fred couldn’t help noticing that it was the NASA team that
really fixed the final destination on Mars, set a fairly aggressive
launch schedule based on their weather predictions and modeling of
planetary trajectories, established the scientific goals for the
mission, and provided the engineering as well as the propulsion
platform. Mealon’s contributions mostly decked out the passenger
capsule with more polish and ultra-light veneer than had ever before
graced a Mars-bound rocket. It was a win-win situation for sure. Until
some worries began to intrude on Fred’s happy days. What if the
suspended animation during flight didn’t work for her baby-to-be?
Initial plans called for a closely monitored hiatus of six months’
sleep-acceleration / time-suspension. Would critical fetal development
be halted permanently? Or would it start back up after the delay? The
delicate and amazing choreography of embryogenesis was still poorly
understood, even after years of research focused on how the Zika virus
engendered microcephaly. Would the baby’s nutritional needs be greater
than what her suppressed and suspended metabolism could provide? Had
SATS ever been tested on a pregnant woman before? If they knew, would
NASA even let her go on this flight? She
had a lot to figure out, more training ahead, and only 6 weeks left
before launch. At least, she thought, she would be underway before the
start of her second trimester. There was a chance of keeping the whole
thing under wraps, as long as she could do her medical research
covertly and find good news. As
a few more days passed, the best news for Finn, and also for Reid, was
that NASA scientists had based their mission goals almost entirely
around the drones that only their favorite company could provide. Full
mapping of the surface of Mars was indeed possible, and with their
payload of 256 PAL 9000s, each carrying a multispectral scanner, it
would only take about three months of constant flight, recording, and
simultaneous transmission once they established the data network on the
red planet. The mapping would surely reveal mineral or other resources
sufficient to open up Mars to commercial interest, which would bring
the private sector investments needed to build the infrastructure for
large-scale colonization. And a likely need for yet more drones. NASA
was transitioning to a new role as the interplanetary Department of
Commerce, which was just fine for everyone who made or invested in PAL
9000s. So Finn, Fred, Reid, Mealon, and even Chet Beau-Zeau were in a
pretty good place. Cav,
depauperate and earthbound, was about to make another tragic move by
flying to Stacy like a moth burning itself out against a porch light,
but he, too, had a chance to benefit financially. The battles over
Venus had not yet begun, and Interplanetary Luxury Lines and its ILL
Mars Mover were just cocktail hour musings for Fred and Finn. “Hey Red, can you please bring some more salsa?” “What?” “These chips are bone dry. Can you please bring some more salsa?” Fred, who had liked her nickname ‘Red’ ever since she saw Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, stopped spooning salsa into her mouth. Another craving. Weird. “Sure, coming right up!” “Thanks. That’s better… Hey, did you hear what the atmospheric team said today?” “Which one, Earth or Mars?” “Earth team this time. We might have to shift the launch date until later. Or earlier. They don’t really seem to know.” “Wow, what’s up with that?” “Their
models don’t work well anymore. Global warming - now they’re calling it
‘global weirding’ - has put way larger bands of uncertainty around all
their predictions. In short, they aren’t confident they can find a
storm-free launching window for us to get past the atmosphere. And you
know how critical the precise trajectory is at that stage of our
journey…” “Oh”, her mind was counting down the 280 days as she spoke. “How long do you think it will delay launch?” “That’s just the point. We can’t know because they don’t
know. Their only solution is for everyone to be ready to leave at a
moment’s notice. They’ve scheduled us for our pre-flight physicals
had recently learned their physical’s blood sample tests would surely
let NASA in on her secret. She had to let Finn know before the secret
came out. Remembering that inspiring line from Shakespeare, “There is a
tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to
fortune”, she gathered her courage and waded right in. “Great. I’ve got news, too.” “Oh?” “Yes… when we lift off, we won’t be the only people onboard.” “I
think I know that already. Mealon, Reid, and at least two of those NASA
scientists are going to be onboard. Maybe more if the payload
calculations work.” “That’s not what I meant. What I meant is that I’m pregnant. Our baby will be there with us!” Fred
had never seen Finn so completely at a loss. Luckily, it took him but a
moment to leap up, wrap her in his arms, hug her tighter than ever
before, and exclaim, “Honey, you have made me the happiest man on Earth, and soon to be on Mars as well! I love you so much.” Meanwhile,
the poorest fifty-year-old expat Kiwi in San Francisco, if not on all
of Earth, was about to leave the ground, taking a short flight south to
visit Stacy, thanks to the e-ticket she had provided. It was a short
flight, but he was sure he could still charm a few extra small bottles
from the beverage cart stewardess.
Chapter 22 – My Favorite Martian
by Steve Hufford
“Cav, I’m so sorry. For everything…”
“I’ve been up all night, missing you, and regretting so much. All those games…”
She burst into tears for good effect, recalling how useful they had been to unman Cav on more than one occasion.
“Ah, c’mon Stace…”
Her sly smile was beautiful in its way, even as she pushed out another sob for his benefit. She knew she would be more than his match once they were reunited and face to face. Proximity, perfume and her curves would work their ineluctable magic. Cav, always her favorite Kiwi, was no competition, but he would surely meet her needs once again.
Fred, meanwhile, was learning about the needs of early pregnancy. There were some nauseating times when she just needed quiet and rest; and others when she felt an urgent prompting to scarf down some slightly unusual food groups. What was up with that? Perhaps her body manifesting it’s own wisdom to obtain an essential trace element needed by her baby?
Regardless, she managed to keep Finn in the dark with some modest subterfuge, claiming her increased appetite must have come from the extra workouts she was beginning in preparations for… The Trip!
The prospect of a completely new life ahead, and the amazing gift of carrying new life within, put her over the top each day. She was so ebullient and glowing that people would have started to wonder and talk, were it not for the fact that the excitement was building for everyone in her immediate circle.
Fred and Finn had been working long hours with Reid, Mealon, and the NASA team to lay out the parameters of their venture. And the NASA team members were so deferential to Mealon, it was almost funny. Years of tight budgets had given them strong incentive to brownnose any billionaires who wanted to bankroll interplanetary manned flights.
“Mr. Usk, can I get you a coffee?” and “Mr. Usk, would you like to see some options for doing just that?” were frequent refrains.
Mealon was very happy, thrilled to bring his design skills to the task, yet Finn and Fred couldn’t help noticing that it was the NASA team that really fixed the final destination on Mars, set a fairly aggressive launch schedule based on their weather predictions and modeling of planetary trajectories, established the scientific goals for the mission, and provided the engineering as well as the propulsion platform. Mealon’s contributions mostly decked out the passenger capsule with more polish and ultra-light veneer than had ever before graced a Mars-bound rocket.
It was a win-win situation for sure.
Until some worries began to intrude on Fred’s happy days. What if the suspended animation during flight didn’t work for her baby-to-be? Initial plans called for a closely monitored hiatus of six months’ sleep-acceleration / time-suspension. Would critical fetal development be halted permanently? Or would it start back up after the delay? The delicate and amazing choreography of embryogenesis was still poorly understood, even after years of research focused on how the Zika virus engendered microcephaly. Would the baby’s nutritional needs be greater than what her suppressed and suspended metabolism could provide? Had SATS ever been tested on a pregnant woman before? If they knew, would NASA even let her go on this flight?
She had a lot to figure out, more training ahead, and only 6 weeks left before launch. At least, she thought, she would be underway before the start of her second trimester. There was a chance of keeping the whole thing under wraps, as long as she could do her medical research covertly and find good news.
As a few more days passed, the best news for Finn, and also for Reid, was that NASA scientists had based their mission goals almost entirely around the drones that only their favorite company could provide. Full mapping of the surface of Mars was indeed possible, and with their payload of 256 PAL 9000s, each carrying a multispectral scanner, it would only take about three months of constant flight, recording, and simultaneous transmission once they established the data network on the red planet. The mapping would surely reveal mineral or other resources sufficient to open up Mars to commercial interest, which would bring the private sector investments needed to build the infrastructure for large-scale colonization. And a likely need for yet more drones.
NASA was transitioning to a new role as the interplanetary Department of Commerce, which was just fine for everyone who made or invested in PAL 9000s. So Finn, Fred, Reid, Mealon, and even Chet Beau-Zeau were in a pretty good place.
Cav, depauperate and earthbound, was about to make another tragic move by flying to Stacy like a moth burning itself out against a porch light, but he, too, had a chance to benefit financially. The battles over Venus had not yet begun, and Interplanetary Luxury Lines and its ILL Mars Mover were just cocktail hour musings for Fred and Finn.
“Hey Red, can you please bring some more salsa?”
“These chips are bone dry. Can you please bring some more salsa?”
Fred, who had liked her nickname ‘Red’ ever since she saw Carey Grant and Katherine Hepburn in Philadelphia Story, stopped spooning salsa into her mouth. Another craving. Weird.
“Sure, coming right up!”
“Thanks. That’s better… Hey, did you hear what the atmospheric team said today?”
“Which one, Earth or Mars?”
“Earth team this time. We might have to shift the launch date until later. Or earlier. They don’t really seem to know.”
“Wow, what’s up with that?”
“Their models don’t work well anymore. Global warming - now they’re calling it ‘global weirding’ - has put way larger bands of uncertainty around all their predictions. In short, they aren’t confident they can find a storm-free launching window for us to get past the atmosphere. And you know how critical the precise trajectory is at that stage of our journey…”
“Oh”, her mind was counting down the 280 days as she spoke. “How long do you think it will delay launch?”
“That’s just the point. We can’t know because they don’t know. Their only solution is for everyone to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. They’ve scheduled us for our pre-flight physicals tomorrow.”
Fred had recently learned their physical’s blood sample tests would surely let NASA in on her secret. She had to let Finn know before the secret came out. Remembering that inspiring line from Shakespeare, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune”, she gathered her courage and waded right in.
“Great. I’ve got news, too.”
“Yes… when we lift off, we won’t be the only people onboard.”
“I think I know that already. Mealon, Reid, and at least two of those NASA scientists are going to be onboard. Maybe more if the payload calculations work.”
“That’s not what I meant. What I meant is that I’m pregnant. Our baby will be there with us!”
Fred had never seen Finn so completely at a loss. Luckily, it took him but a moment to leap up, wrap her in his arms, hug her tighter than ever before, and exclaim,
“Honey, you have made me the happiest man on Earth, and soon to be on Mars as well! I love you so much.”
Meanwhile, the poorest fifty-year-old expat Kiwi in San Francisco, if not on all of Earth, was about to leave the ground, taking a short flight south to visit Stacy, thanks to the e-ticket she had provided. It was a short flight, but he was sure he could still charm a few extra small bottles from the beverage cart stewardess.