A few weeks ago, I participated in the first round of a short story contest. NYC Midnight (www.nycmidnight.com). This is a fun contest that has been running for a few years and growing each year. The contest divides each round into a separate heats. Each heat is given a genre, a plot device, and a character. Each contestant in that heat must right a 2500 word (max) story that uses all three. There is a week for the first round. This year, I was given “Science Fiction – Retirement – a Computer Programmer.” Each heat has roughly 30 participants. The top five in each heat continue on to the next round. My story was third in my heat. I am going to the next round. Tomorrow night at 11:59, I will be sent instructions and will have three days to write a 1500 word (max) short story. Part of the fun of this contest is that there is no way that contestants can get a leg up. I suppose it is possible that I have been working on a short sci-fi story about a retiring computer programmer and have it sitting around in my file, but it would be highly unlikely. This is the third time I have entered this contest. The first time was about five years ago. The contest was fairly small and only the top story in each each moved on to the next level–I was second in my heat. The next year was bigger; the top two from each heat moved on–I was third. This time I take another step forward. Perhaps next week I will post my earlier stories. I though I might post my current one tonight. Keep your fingers crossed over the next few days and hope that I draw something fun.
By Edward Eaton
Synopsis: When John takes early retirement, he learns that there is a lot less to retirement than he had expected. Banned from the company he started and cut off from his friends, he figures out a way to return to his old life.
“HOW much longer will you be?” The soft voice said.
99%, John thought. “Just a few more lines of code, Francis. Just finishing.”
Francis’ head hovered just to the left of John’s virtual screen. Francis clucked. He looked and sounded like the Chairman’s uncle, but his mannerisms and expressions were pure Flora, John’s great aunt. “You with your typing and keyboards. You think it’s romantically old school, but it is just backwards.”
John sighed. He whipped off a few dozen lines of code at 175 wpm. “Shakespeare wrote with paper and pen,” he said.
“He would have used a neural-reader,” Francis replied. It was an old argument. “If you were linked, you might be Chairman, or at least VP.”
“Aye, but then there’d be no party for me.”
John tapped a few more keys. ‘Cat 8.4’ materialized next to Francis and purred.
“Very nice, John,” the gray-haired avatar said.
“The shell is ready for when the cat is scanned tomorrow. Shame about the little kitten, though. I’ve gotten quite used to it. I hope it doesn’t hurt. The girls will all cry.”
“Yes, John. But they’ll love the new friend on their monitors. I’ll send you a copy. You deserve that much.”
“Thanks,” John grunted. “Look, finish up with my personal files, email them to me, and then delete them from the hard drives. I’d better get there before they eat all the hors devours.”
John flicked off his screen and looked around the dimly lit bullpen. Most of the computers were still on, humming softly. No one else was there. They had all gone to early. Who would pass up on free food? Perhaps they were also hoping to surprise him with the turnout. He waved his hand. His station went dark, and Francis blinked out. He grabbed a few pens out of a habit born when this was still a start-up funded by Federal grants, and shoved them in his overstuffed bag.
One last look at the large electronically buzzing room.
He tossed his keys to the guard in the lobby and waved as he stepped outside.
AS Project Leader, John’s retirement party merited a third floor ballroom at The Ritz, his favorite watering hole. He took a deep breath before bursting into the brightly lit room.
“Good morning, you sons of bitches,” he cried out with a laugh. It was his usual morning greeting.
“John!” they all cried back.
Jenny, the cute new programmer John liked to flirt with, was very attentive, sitting on his lap for much of the evening and even kissing him a few times behind the screen by the dumb waiter.
There were spontaneous speeches. Humorous anecdotes. A few raunchy stories from some of the older guys. Even John’s eyes watered when Max gave his heartfelt farewell toast, though John could see the telltale signs that Max was reading from a script fed to him through his neural link.
“Mary would be proud of what you’ve done,” Max said later, as things got quieter. They had both been part of the start-up team. Max was now a Senior VP. Mary had been Max’s cousin.
“Thanks,” John said.
“She’d want you to enjoy your early retirement,” Max went on. “Go to Hawaii. I hear New Atlantis has repaired their ski resort. Try that out.”
“Why ski five thousand feet below sea level when you can ski five thousand feet above it in Switzerland,” John replied. He did not trust the Ski Dome, which was prone to pressure cracks.
“Or ski on the Neurals,” Max suggested, tapping the hookup right behind his right ear. He glanced at Jenny, who was half asleep with her head in John’s lap. “All sorts of things happen on the Neurals…. We’re going to miss you, John. You were a pioneer.”
“If you need real help,” John said. “Let me know. You can always count on me. But I have plans. Moss won’t grow on this rolling stone.”
“I know and I will,” Max said. “We wouldn’t be here without you, John. You’re one of the best, even if you use these old things.” He wiggled his fingers in the air. “Hey, Ted!” he called over to a younger man by the bar. “Come over and say goodbye to John. They confirmed his appointment just a few minutes ago.” Max’s hand gave John’s shoulder a friendly squeeze, but his gaze pulled in on itself. He was interacting on the Neurals.
“GOOD morning, John,” the pleasant voice said. Mary’s voice.
John took a moment for the haze to clear. He’d had a few too many last night.
He’d had a few too many the past several nights.
He combed his hair.
He could smell the coffee even before he hit the stairs. By the time he reached the kitchen, he could hear the sizzle of eggs and bacon.
“What will you do today?” Mary’s voice asked. The voice made him miss his late wife even more than he usually did. He has not programmed a face, though. That would be too painful.
John shrugged. He was waging a WWII campaign on the ’net. He was doing well, though his opponents could react faster, being linked. There were a few shows he was following. Maybe he would write a book. Start painting again.
He drank his coffee and ate his breakfast. He looked around the apartment. Did he really need so much space?
Maybe a walk in the park would be nice.
“GOOD morning, John,” Mary’s avatar said. “Will you be sleeping this late every day?”
John looked at the clock. 10:13. With a sigh, he sat up. He rubbed his face. His beard was coming in nicely. Growing a beard was his project this week. He got up, stepped over his slippers, and walked down to the kitchen, where his eggs and coffee sat, going cold. He glanced over to the mural he he had begun on the living room wall. He would have to get back to that.
He scratched his cheek. He was not a beard person. He could tell.
“Francis….” Mary started.
“Francis from work.”
“Sent you something.”
John waved his hand at a sensor and the virtual screen opened. ‘Cat 8.4(s)’ ran around on the desktop, chewing on the icons. “Stop that!” John shooed the cat away. It sat on the ‘trash’. “Y’see that?” he crowed. “99% cat.”
“With the neuroimagers and bioscanners, and some clever programming by yours truly, we have 99% cat here. All the cat, even his awareness, memories, personality, or most of them, anyway. Everything but the DNA.”
“Does it need to be fed?” Mary’s voice asked.
John had not really thought about that. “I suppose so. Set something up. And put up a firewall around my personal files.”
“It’s John. From work. John Wilson!”
“Oh, hi Mr. Wilson.”
“Please. John. After the party….Heh, heh.”
“So…would you like to…you know…get together.”
“Y’know. After all…we….”
“Wow! I mean. Look Mr. Wilson—”
“Yeah. We would all like to see you. Hear about…your adventures. We miss your friendly ‘Good morning, you sons of bitches!’ That was great! Why don’t you come over for a drink after work. We’d all like to see you, I’m sure.”
“I was there last night. Didn’t….”
“Yeah. We’re going to The Great Wall, now. Ted—”
“Ted Carlson. Your replacement.”
“Yeah. He likes to go to The Great Wall.
“Not The Ritz?”
“No. So, anyway, come on by someday. It’d be great to see you.”
“You see, I have—“
“Look, uh. Right now we have that deadline…. You know. For the….”
“Thanks for calling, Mr. Wilson.”
“GOOD morning, John,” Mary said. “It’s 10:30.”
John yawned. His head hurt. He looked at the bedside table and saw the empty bottle.
“Are you going to work on your novel today?” Mary asked.
“Stop reminding me about that!”
“But you told me to remind you.”
“Now I’m telling you to stop!”
“I’m sorry, Mary. I shouldn’t snap. Geez. I had some pretty good ideas last night. I just didn’t want to spend the time typing them in”
“There are ways—”
“I will not be linked! Don’t bring it up again. It isn’t that good a story idea anyway. Best if I don’t write it.”
He scratched his cheek. He wished that he had not shaved the beard. If only he would give it time. More time.
There had to be something to watch.
THEY made him wait at security.
What the hell? He had hired two of the three guards himself. Knew them. Knew their kids.
“Sorry, Mr. Wilson,” one of them had said politely. “You’ll have to wait while we get approval. Rules.”
They eventually let him through to the elevators.
He stood just outside the doors to the programming room and listened to the soft murmuring of the programmers, the clinking of their coffee cups, and the cheerful quips from the Avatars executing commands.
John adjusted his collar then strode into the room. “Good morning, you sons of bitches!”
Twenty-some heads turned to look at him. One or two nodded. The others simply turned back and continued mumbling.
He saw Jenny sitting on the edge of his desk—the new guy’s desk
“Hey,” he said going over.
She smiled brightly, but then her gaze retreated. “Yes. Yes. Right away, Francis.” Her gaze turned back to him. “I’m sorry. It’s the Peterson deadline. You really must come by the Great Wall one evening. We’d all really like to know how things are going.” She shook his outstretched arm. “Sometimes I feel like I spend more time with the damn avatar than I do my boyfriend. Do come by.”
As she left, her hand gently caressed Ted Carlson’s shoulder. It should have been his!
Boyfriend? But just a few weeks ago….
“John, John, Johnny!” It was Max. He must have started from his office before John got on the elevator. “How the hell are you? Look, these kids are busy. Let’s go upstairs. There’s prime rib in the Executive Dining Room.”
“AND there’s no central monitor?” John exploded at the end of his tirade. He was sure Max had only heard about half of it. Max had spent the other half fading in and out of communication with his avatar through his neural link.
Max smiled. “Ted has a lot of new ideas about compartmentalization. I know. I know. But we’ve come a long way since we were kids. Besides, it’s his department. And it seems to be working. Look. John. We are so glad that you decided to drop by. Really, and I mean it, you should drop by whenever you want. Really. But you have to call ahead. We have deadlines. New policies. Oversight. Love to see you. Look. Look. I have a friend on the New Atlantis board. I hear it’s overbooked, but I can get you in. You might as well spend some of your buyout money. And enjoy yourself while you’re still young. Why take early retirement if you’re not going to enjoy it? I’ll have my car take you home. The reservation will be in your box before you open your front door. The stories I hear. Well…I wish I could be going with you…but…I have a company to run. Maybe next year.”
“HOW was the trip?” Mary asked.
John tossed his back towards the laundry door and plopped down onto the couch. “Old couples and young families,” he scowled. He waved his hand to turn on the virtual monitor. No messages. He had not checked in a week! “Anyone try to get me here? Did you forget to forward anything?”
He heard a crash and saw something rush across the screen. Two cats were fighting. “What’s that?”
“Francis sent it this morning. I forgot to tell you.”
John waved at Francis’ icon.
“Good morning, John. Hope your trip was fun. This is ‘Cat 8.5(s)’. 99.9% cat. Minimal pain on the scan, and the girls all squealed when they saw him. He’ll be happier here that he was in the kennel.”
John waved his hand to turn off the virtual monitor. He flicked open the television and scrolled through his recorded shows.
Nothing really interesting.
Maybe that one.
“ARE you going to go out today?” Mary asked.
John scratched his new beard.
“I’m gonna catch up on my shows. Order some Chinese for me, and have them add on a twelve of beer.”
JOHN pushed the empty pizza box to one side with his food. The cleaning woman would pick it up tomorrow. Or the next day.
He opened the blinds. It was afternoon! All those people, sheep, going about their dull working lives.
He closed the blinds.
He sat in front of the television screen. There had to be something on.
“I’M sorry, John,” Max said. “There isn’t anything. Yes, we all miss you, but the new board has established all sort of rules There’s also government oversight. Just about everyone has a doctorate these days. If I couldn’t vote my stock, I might be out of a job. Look, there’s a reception at the end of September for ‘Cat 8.5(s)’. Why don’t you come? I’ll get you a seat on the stage. I’m really sorry, John….”
JOHN lay on his bed, watching the ceiling fan spin.
“Mary, open my monitor and keyboard.”
“What is the new project, John?”
“I’m writing a book.”
“About a cat.”
THE presentation had been cloyingly dull. John had done the nest he could not to fall asleep. Everyone else on the stage had retreated into Neurals. John did not have that luxury.
After the applause had died down and he had shaken everyone’s hands two or three times, including those of the noticeably pregnant Jenny and the looking-not-very-happy-about-it Ted, John had drifted towards the older single-person offices used mostly for storage now. The party died down. The janitorial robots drifted across the floors and then powered down.
John called up a remote virtual monitor.
Francis materialized. “What are you doing, John? What are you loading onto our…? You can’t be serious. This is a breach of….”
John snapped out a string of numbers. “I built this place, Francis. Don’t think I don’t know of a few backdoors I did not lock. Let the program download and install. Power up the machine.”
“Are you crazy?”
THE pain was a lot more intense that he had feared it would be. But it was over so quickly, that it barely had time to register before it was over.
The machine powered down.
The dust settled.
HE waited until almost 9:30. Everyone was there.
They were going to love this!
John 2.0(s) materialized on the monitors.
“Good morning, you sons of bitches!”