24 Nov

Cognitive Breakage

SONY DSC

What pulls the reader out of your story?

From critters.org, I certainly have read many efforts that caused the literary equivalent of whiplash. Reading along and suddenly, a voice from the background says, “Like a hunter*,” and my beleaguered brain locks up. Who said that? Was that character always there, but I just didn’t notice? Or my personal favorite, the main character just happens to be carrying a sonic screwdriver or whatever perfectly fits the need. Where did they get that? Another that gets me involves the unreasonable reaction. One character bids another a cheerful “good morning,” to which the second character turns red in fury and shouts, “get bent, you lout!”

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02 Jan

All Tech No Brains – Little Pebble

Well…we’ve come to the end of our little revisit to my misspent youth. Only one little track left, and we can get back to more important things. Whatever those may be. 🙂 Like some of those DOSBox articles I promised so long ago…

pebbles

I actually went on this little journey for a number of reasons. First, as I think I already stated, a blog is something of a painfully open little journal. And because of this, all current interests and activities are fodder. But the root cause of all of this springs from my desire to return to the world of audio. This case in particular is some self-flagellating (and induced) training on audio mastering techniques. You will admit, as I do, that I still have much to learn!

main_screenshot_small

And if I had had access to software like Ardour (www.ardour.org) fifteen years ago, who knows what we would have created. Maybe nothing–maybe all the goofiness of tracking boom-boxes back and fourth through a Radio Shack mixer was a necessary part of the process.

The evening that I showed up at Tom’s house armed with the “drums” from “The Phone Bill”, I found that he had done little planning ahead too. He had been out and about that day and picked up a “Relaxation” CD from some bargain bin. It was entitled something like, “Seashore with Cello and Gulls.” It was a real thing of beauty. Over 75 unadulterated minutes of white noise for only $3.95!!! It was cheap at half the price…I mean, twice the price!

The drums distracted him initially, and in reality, after we were done with phone bill, I was ready to go. However, Tom seemed a touch put out that we had not used his new CD for anything yet.

Sigh.

I’m glad I stayed though, or the world might never know about being “sturdy and strong.”

There were two parts to this one. The ocean noises and…well, that part in the middle. We simply ran a microphone into a quadraverb and turned the reverb up to eleven (a major mistake when you don’t have a true monitoring system) and played the CD. Tom did what Tom always did–wrote a funny little bit and spoke with alacrity.

But, we discovered that it needed something. That certain je ne sais quoi. By this time it’s really really really early in the morning. So, we kinda went back to defaults:

  1. We randomly detuned his guitar to a truly janglely degree, put some massive distortion on my bass, and sampled about a 3 second loop into the effects processor. This loop was put on infinite repeat and fed back into the mixer with the analog synth. We rolled tape while I completely improvised some crazy “dance of the baby elephants” melody line. We just filled up a few minutes and ended the cacophony. The length didn’t matter, we knew it was going to be faded in and then back out.
  2. Next we loaded that target tape up into one of the source decks and gave Tom a mic full of tube distortion. He tracked those fateful words so rich with meaning and portent, “Suddenly, a giant octopus…”
  3. Step Three: Smile at a job well done.

With a little manual timing to start cassette players and quasi-deft hand at the faders, we mixed the two tapes together.

Now to clean this up, I followed the same procedure as before with one deviation. The source audio I sampled with the Extigy had two problems. To get a good level on the ocean waves part would cause the middle bit to clip badly and come in waaaaay too hot. The final product still has a defect on one or two of the peaks (it sounds like clipping), but unfortunately it was recorded that way; so GIGO rules apply.

The second problem stems from the fact that–back then–I was monitoring with really bad headphones two feet away from the input (Tom). I didn’t find out that the voice over was COMPLETELY UNINTELLIGIBLE until riding home in my truck that morning. I had cranked the wet/dry mix on the reverb to the place that one could barely hear what he was saying. Oh, sure, there were plenty of reverb reflections, but the words themselves where buried in them. Enough of the live sound was leaking into my headphones sitting across the table from Tom that I didn’t hear the problem going to tape until too late.

Gee…perhaps we should have invested in some real monitoring headphones?

 

[amazon-product align=”center”]B000AJIF4E[/amazon-product]

 

Ouch. Before I could post it here, I would have to fix all of this. I tried a couple of ways to treat the entire track, but didn’t get too far. So, I eventually sampled the tape into two tracks in my studio software. That way, I could apply different filters on the ocean part and the crazy part. The first part cleaned up amazingly–a dynamic expander and more than a little noise reduction killed the lion’s share of the reverb and brought the vocal back to the front of the mix.

The crazy octopus part was more labor-intensive. I created a custom volume envelope for each peak so that I could automate “ducking” the bad spots. Then I compressed it and equalized the fire out of it.

Mixing these two tracks back together, I nudged the waveforms around a little which probably shortened the length some, but no biggie. I think I learned more about mastering with this one then I did on the others. Have a listen and tell me if you disagree.

Title: Little Pebble
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Self-Help Tapes

Ok, that is all. However, not a final all. My brother Brad gave me one of our old band’s “professional” tapes. It sounded horrible. I intend to remaster all eight songs as a favor for him. Of these I may post a sample as a before and after with screen shots on the entire process.

We’ll see how it turns out. Until then, thanks for stopping by, see you soon!

28 Dec

All Tech No Brains – The Phone Bill

african_safari_pith_helmet

Welcome back! Today I have an unmitigated pile of steaming silliness for your consumption.

Wait.

Maybe that should be a steaming pile of unmitigated silliness.

There’s another of those pesky “flaming herring juggler” problems. (You’re free to do a site search on that one.) In any event, “Phone Bill” is the fourth entry of the five into this dastardly waste of our time and effort. To list some of the high points of its pedigree: It is somewhat politically incorrect. It holds the record for involving more household trash items in the recording phase. It may be the one that still elicits a few chuckles from me when I hear it. Or at least it ties with the giant octopus part of the fifth and final work. Hard to say, really.

Once again, the scene is 1992-ish. It all started with some changed plans, when Tom and I both found ourselves “at liberty” one Friday evening. So, to record! But what? As I was loading my gear into my somewhat beaten up 1985 Nissan King Cab, I started to look around the garage. Here was a set of toy bongo drums–who knows where (and when) they originated. And over here was a plastic document mailer tube. These are mostly cardboard now-a-days, but this one was almost like a chunk of PVC pipe, with two rubberized caps. Sure seemed like the evening’s recordings would involve some rhythmic elements.

I couldn’t have been further from the truth–but that was more in the vein of personal failings where the word “rhythm” is concerned…

Anyway, I also found a hardwired intercom that I had once purchased at a garage sale. It is so old that I can’t even find a picture of it anywhere on the web. But the units were beige, connected with 1/8″ phono connectors, and had these giant yellow TALK buttons. I tossed them into the truck with all the other stuff.

At Tom’s, the “drums” were brought in last and met with great glee. I guess sometimes enthusiasm may be worth more than careful planning–however this wasn’t one of those times!

We rolled tape on the two of us giving our new percussion instruments the “what for”. Tom was on the toy bongos playing barehanded. I had opted for the “shipping tube” with one end removed. Eschewing the use of a drumstick (not that we had one), I was using an ink pen. I’m pretty sure that we dropped a cheap RadShack microphone down into the tube for those big, ill-defined, boomy sounds. That and all the reverb on the tape.

Right here is where that planning thing would have come in to be useful. We both started playing random rhythms…and changed rhythms throughout the course of the tape. We probably intended to see what worked, and then go back and re-do it… But we didn’t. I can’t explain why.

And to top it all off, this was before I forced myself to develop my own sense of rhythm. To put it simply, we didn’t have great timing (the failings I mentioned earlier).

In spite of all these factors, once we listened back, it actually sounded tribal. So, speaking into the shipping tube drum, I sampled the phrase “Oom-Laba, Oom-Baba”. At least I think that’s the proper spelling, I don’t have the ancient text on hand at the moment… No matter, this sample was queued on the Quadraverb to be triggered at the press of a button. This sample was added in on final mixdown–I remember triggering it by hand. We also added in someone tapping the plastic tube with a fork or something…don’t re

What I don’t remember exactly is the complete order of events that followed. We either bounced out a tape of the “drums” and my synthesizer part. Or Tom (after a significant amount of writing time during which I ground and brewed some blue-berry infused coffee beans) recorded the voice over. I think it was the later, which I believe we ran through the intercom system. Gave it that great, phoned-in, scratchy quality.

That just left the synth part, which should have been played on the mix-down (less bounces means better “quality”). However, I know that I trigged the samples, so it had to be on tape.

So…here it is. Wish I could say it was life-changing, but I do hope it will give you a smile. If you scrub up to about the 1:00 minute mark, it won’t hurt my feelings. That’s where Tom will be heard to say, “I was hunting asparagus deep in the jungles of Kenya…”

asparagus

Oh, and one word of warning: The last line is proceeded by a curse word. Many may feel this particularly expletive to be relatively benign in today’s culture, however, I disagree. Actually, I believe that, at the very least, the use of curse words to be an indicator in one’s character that vocabulary and good manners are severely lacking. Now, this is certainly not the case with Tom, who was one of the most intelligent and erudite people I’ve ever met. I believe he included it here as a callback to phrases like “balderdash” and “pip, pip”. In other words, to further portray the pith helmet, monocle, and pork-chop-sideburns set.

Title: The Phone Bill
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: Great White Hunters

Whee!!! Only one left. I think it is probably the best of all–no mean distinction, that. It is called “Little Pebble”. It makes me giggle like a silly schoolgirl whenever I listen to it. In addition to all this, it is probably the most complex musically and may even have the highest concept. Well, relatively, that is.

See you, Space Cowboy.

24 Dec

All Tech No Brains – My Buddy Eddie

atnb

There’s just no good way to classify some things:

  • Duckbilled Platypus
  • Plasma
  • and “My Buddy Eddie”

For the purposes of honesty, maybe I should add Richard Simmons to that list.

Maybe not.

Anyway, heretofore with these recordings I could always offer a general target at which the mockery aimed. This one…well…not so much. From the very first, “Hey, come on in, man…” to the last strains of the ill-advised kudzu solo, “My Buddy Eddie” escapes classification.

I guess the closest I can think of is this William Shatner album:

william_shatner_transformed_man

The phrasings from this particular piece seem to pop into my mind as much or more than the others for some reason: “Sit back, relax, yeah, be cool,” in particular. Perhaps it was just the way Tom rattled it off. Oddly, I don’t remember even paying attention to what he was saying at the time. Which is even more odd when you realize that there was no drug or alcohol use involved with any of these.

Seriously.

Let me deconstruct the layers a bit. It sounds as though we had at least two tapes queued up. The first one was Tom’s voice-over part. Obviously, we couldn’t get enough of my bass head’s tube distortion on vocals. There may have been a little reverb on it as well, or that may have been applied to the entire recording as it went to tape. I don’t know, I wasn’t really into consistent professional approaches to my mixdown procedures then.

casio_cz1000

I’m pretty sure that Tom’s little synth was this Casio CZ-1000. The pad I was playing was probably a preset. I ran it through the processor with some reverb, chorus, and a dash of digital delay. And for Heaven’s sake, could we even begin to record something without that STUPID panner?!?!? We mixed this into the second queued tape of some custom patches Tom whipped up (or hastily edited) that sounded a bit like sirens. I love to hear those operators burbling along there in the lower parts.

Analog synthesizers are just cool.

So, I started playing the pad and using the bend wheel rather than fingering. About a measure in, Tom started the tape with the siren sounds. And after killing everyone softly with my song, he started the vocal tape (with a massive hiss injection). And then for some reason, after the VO was done, he grabbed a mic, brought up the level, and started playing kudzu.

Completly atonally. Creative differences like this have broken up more that one band, let me just tell you!

Well, the defects (outside of the kudzu, that is) are pretty obvious. Like most complete tyros, we went on way too long with the first bit. It really shouldn’t have been interesting enough to warrant such attention. That said, all-in-all, I still think “My Buddy Eddie” is achieves it’s immediate goal of being funny to at least Tom and myself. Which was all we were asking for.

Title: My Buddy Eddie
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: ???

Wasn’t that fun? Oh? Well, look at it this way, only two to go. And the next one, that we’ll just call “The Phone Bill”, isn’t particularly politically correct. But it is one of the most silly.  And that is saying something!

See ya then.

12 Oct

All Tech No Brains – Thursday Morning

atnb

Old Tapes

On warm summer nights (almost 15 years ago) at around 7:00PM, I would load up my sound gear and head for my friend Tom’s house. He’d be home for the summer from college, and neither of us apparently had much going on. I was working 3rd shift, and he was just a night owl. We’d keep ourselves going on freshly ground flavored coffee his parents had picked up in New Orleans that year. And over the rising steam of blueberry tinged mugs, we would record.

And record.

As the morning sun found us, I would be packing up my stuff and heading out. But I would not be leaving without a fresh cassette tape from our midnight toil. Many of those tapes are probably long lost. Several only Tom had–we kept them in the “sound library” for later background tracks. How I wish I had a copy of the “Death Calliope”…uh…long story. Somehow, though, one has survived in my possession.

This particular collection actually spanned 2 or 3 recording sessions and feature my just purchased digital effects processor. It was an ART Multiverb Alpha, and cost me about $400.00 at the time. We were so enamored with the capabilities of this box that we started to try all kinds of craziness. So much so that after I left, Tom had become disgusted with our “over-reliance” on this technology and scrawled “All Tech, No Brains” on the tape.

I remember being insulted. Tom later recanted, saying, “It’s better than I thought!”

multiverb

Create a Masterpiece

Anyway, if I can remember all the of the components, this was track was primarily made with:

  • Tom’s Brain: The libretto–yes, we actually called it that…
  • Yamaha BB300: My first bass…no attack, no sustain, but it was cheap. Which was alright, since I couldn’t play very well.
  • ART Multiverb Alpha: Sampler, digital stereo effects, and equalization. Mine looks a bit different from the picture, but pretty close.
  • ADA Bass Preamp: I didn’t know why I wanted this…Vic Wooten played one, though! I later become frustrated and sold it.
  • Glass of Water and Straw: Yep. Bubbles.
  • Portable Guitar Tuner: Hey, this thing has a built in microphone!
  • Radio Shack Audio Mixer: Oh, the hiss this thing imparted…
  • Any of a handful of boom boxes and cassette recorders…

To make the audio, I sampled Tom blowing air bubbles into a glass of water with the Alpha and put it on infinite repeat. That was patched into the mixer with my bass through the ADA preamp on a really ugly tube distortion. Here is where I’m a little sketchy–I can hear both of us talking in the background. Maybe we had an entire tape of the bubble noise? And while that was being recorded, we had an open mic? Whatever it was got slapped into a tape player and we recorded Tom over the top. Sounds like we had a flanger and a panner on Tom’s voice.

Yeah, it was pretty much the best I know of… 🙂

And Now, Clean It Up

So, I have a tape from 1993-ish that has been hanging around in box full of cassettes for at least 10 years. It is old, brittle, and full of wow and flutter. Really, it didn’t sound that great to begin with, as we hadn’t figured out how to set a level on a tape. Key concept that I didn’t know back then: Get the levels as hot as the media can stand, so the listener doesn’t have to crank the volume to hear it, thereby increasing the inherent noise level. Duh.

extigy

To clean up a file like this, you need some hardware and tools. For hardware, I ran the headphones out of an old tape player (does it really matter?) into a the line-in of a Sound Blaster Extigy. This is an slightly older device, but Windows Vista has built-in drivers and it works like a CHAMP! The recording was at 48000KHz sampling anda depth of 24-bit. So, while it may not be a professional interface, did a great job here. One my motivating factors in the purchase of the Extigy was to externalize my sound inputs. Internal sound cards will never be as “clean” as an external interface. Too much electrical interference going on inside the computer itself.

Software wise, Audacity is free, but the plug-ins are limiting. However, they were good enough for this project. I took out the hiss first, then added a little compression to fatten it up. There really wasn’t much to EQ on this trash–the recording level was extremely low on the source cassette. Remember to get a good sample of noise only to teach the hiss plug-in what you do not want.

On the high end, one might use Cakewalk Sonar and Waves plug-ins. X-Hiss from Waves is one of the best noise removers I’ve ever heard, but it is also one of the most expensive packages out there. So, I guess you do what you can with what you have.

Everything comes down to how much you tweak it. Or in other words, time spent.

End Result

If I remember correctly, the point of this particular “work” was to make fun of modern French poetry. Which poetry is especially virulent when translated poorly into English. I think you get the picture. And please remember, I am a Christian now–so, while I’ll let you listen to the end result; it was made years ago. Not that it’s bad or nasty or anything…I just can’t imagine revisiting this kind of silliness in my present life.

Just so you know.

Oh yeah, before I forget, the little flash player utility adds some hiss to the playback because it samples down for streaming. If you download the file, it is much cleaner.

Warning: All views or concepts expressed in these recordings are meant to spoof, poke fun at, or in some way make ridiculous those who take themselves too seriously. You have been warned…

Title: Thursday Morning
Album: All Tech No Brains
Artists: Tom Murray and Joseph Baxter
Target: French Poetry

I’m a little proud of this and a little repulsed all at the same time. But since this is a blog, and one of the themes is creativity, I thought these recordings should be referenced. I’m actually rather hoping that Tom will find them and get in touch with me. I haven’t heard from him in almost as many years.

13 Mar

Those Who Live by the Sword

© Joseph Baxter

Note: This story was written in homage to Ray Bradbury. I have lost count of the references to his short stories contained herein.

The dream I had had, now gone forever-made intangible by my dawning consciousness; and trying to keep it was as futile as clutching at a wisp of smoke. Like a hand full of fine sand, the harder the effort made to hold to it, the more that slips away. The dream was now gone away, and, at my acceptance of that fact, reality changed and shifted and heaved.

My eyes came open.

I found myself to be lying on a stiff metal bed, and staring up into an array of medical lights. An old man with a wizened face was standing over me, smiling faintly. He was altogether too close–the hoary strands from his balding head momentarily blocked the bright light from above, giving the apparition of a halo. Would I have imagined myself confronted by an angel had not I also been confronted by his soured breath? In that second before I awoke completely, one thing stood foremost in my mind, I had no idea at all how I came to be in this place. But, presently, the old gentleman spoke.

“Ah, Mr. Bradbury,” he said as he pulled his face away, “you’re awake.” He settled back into a chair and broke into a genial, however, crooked smile. The old man was a remarkable character, and if I had ever seen him before this moment, it certainly would have been well remembered. For there was one particularly striking feature that possessed the man, the one thing that for some reason burned in my mind. That singular feature was the old man’s shirt. Oh, and what a shirt it was. It was at one time every nightmare and dream I had ever had. It was nature, life and death, space and time. In its cloth there lay the power to create and destroy, but at that singular instant, the image looked like nothing so much as a single sunrise.

One hopeful, glorious, warming sunrise-the sun poised to throw his rays over the shoulders of the sleeping mountains.

This picture fascinated me and I became lost in it. Only a moment later–though it was a subjective eternity-the old man moved, causing the cloth to ripple and the vista was lost forever. I wondered to myself if it was wrong to mourn the loss of a picture half seen in the dyes of shirt-cloth. My head was still swimming-perhaps I had been in an accident! Perhaps even now the pain-killers coursed through my broken body causing me to see things that did not exist. I felt myself becoming agitated.

Seeing my upset, a concerned look crossed the old man’s face. Reaching up to switch off the intense lights, this stranger introduced himself. “Please, do not alarm yourself. Everything is alright. My name is Dr. Marcus Drake; I am a great admirer of your work.”

The oldster’s eyebrows shot up his forehead whenever he spoke, like every word he uttered was some great revelation. Was that a beacon of senility in the old man’s eyes? I tried to say something in reply but found my throat too dry to form words. I wanted to ask where I was, but my voice only cracked and caused me to start coughing painfully.

“Oh, now, don’t try to talk yet; the medication takes a while to wear off. Here, drink this,” Drake said as he helped me into a sitting position. He gave me a glass. It contained only water–or at least seemed to–but did a great deal towards freeing my voice. After several swallows I felt I could speak, if only a little.

“Where am I?” I got out before the coughing returned, doubling me over in pain. Old Drake’s wrinkled face knotted with concern again and he put out a hand to steady. When the coughing fit had passed, I drank some more from the glass. My eyes seemed to be watering uncontrollably, giving everything in the room a bleary glow.

“An un-original question,” said the old man after a pause to regain his apparently usual humor, “but you are in my house.”

“How-,” I started but my voice caught again, and I quickly drained the glass. Drake held up a hand to quiet me, anticipating the questions.

“Well, well, let me explain some of that. You see, you have been dead for a long time, Mr. Bradbury. Some seven hundred years, I should think. I have brought you back.” The oldster said the last statement so simply that I’m certain any kind of incredulous look was on my face-truly as if such revival were an everyday happening.

“From the dead?” I managed.

“Well, of course, where else?” Drake said, somewhat preoccupied as he spun about in his chair and busied himself with a few instruments.

“It is quite ironic, you know,” he threw over his shoulder. “The longevity treatments came only a few decades after your death. In all actuality, I am only fifty-two years older than you. But still, as you can see, the advent of the drug caught me a bit late in life.” He turned and considered me with a thoughtful look.

“Come to think of it, you’re the youngest author I am bothering to resurrect.”

He suddenly smiled, and getting up from his seat, moved across the junk-strewn room where he started to fiddle with some other equipment.

“Author?” I said, this time with surprising ease. I felt a little more functional now. My brain had finally come alive and questions regarding this bizarre situation screamed through my mind. Yet for some reason I only asked, “You only revive authors?”

“Oh, yes, that’s what I do, you know. Revive all the great old time authors. I’m researching a book, you see.”

I didn’t see. I tried to stand, to get away-run! My head suddenly weighed too much and the room spun like a nightmare carousel. I had to collapse back onto the table with clenched my eyes shut, and stayed there holding my head in both my hands until the waves of nausea had passed.

The old man’s breathy voice trailed off and became only an echoed murmuring. I now looked up and realized that he had walked away down the hall. I didn’t trust myself to stand yet, at least for a while, so my gaze frantically traveled about the room, looking at first this and then to that. I was looking for anything that I could use to gain an orientation-some clue that would help me understand what was going on. Finally, my eyes fell upon the console behind where the old man had been sitting. The lights winked and flickered back at me in sinister patterns. On its face there were a hundred buttons and as many levers and switches. It was surprising how much it looked like those early science-fiction films I had once loved so…if Drake was to be believed, over seven hundred years ago. And then I saw it.

A dark coldness knifed through me, and I stared fixedly at the small nameplate attached to the lower left corner of the console. It bore only the word “Fantoccini”. I swallowed hard and racked my brain to find the word-to find some reason why it frightened me so. I was still staring in anguished contemplation when Drake returned.

“I have a meal prepared for you; I hope it will be to your taste.” He smiled. “There is much we have to talk about. Do you feel up to it?”

I nodded my head absently, then, tearing my gaze away from the console, looked up at the old man. “That name, Fantoccini, where have I heard that before?”

Dr. Drake’s head jerked slightly as a look of astonishment for a moment crossed his features. He replied, if a little too off-handedly, “Oh, well, that’s nothing, nothing at all really. Better you just forget about it.”

His eyes shone with the light of withheld tension, silently requesting that the matter be settled-almost as though he were imploring me to ask no more. He turned to leave, and glancing back to where I was still perched said, “Well, when you feel up to it, Mr. Bradbury.”

He gave me one last look in askance and started to walk from the room.

“Wait!” I shouted hoarsely-startling even me as the sound echoed from the stone walls. But how could the old man so easily discount something that seemed so important? The need to know burned like fire. Dr. Drake stopped at the doorway with an expression of dread. He already knew what the question would be.

“It’s not nothing,” I accused, “is it? I want to know what that name represents.”

Dr. Drake refused to meet my gaze. It was obvious from his manner that the man was unused to lying and still was about to tell a half-truth. In any case, he certainly would not reveal the entirety.

“It’s only the name of the company that makes that equipment.” He hesitated, then turned back and there was sadness in his eyes when they finally met mine, “Please, leave it at that.”

I could tell that the other was unwilling to say more. Dr. Drake stayed in the doorway, perhaps waiting to see whether or not I would press the issue. Through that intangible communication, for the moment we two decided silently to let the issue lie. That any other question would do, except that one. That maybe later, we seemed to console each other in unheard speech; more can be said.

“The date, then,” I asked at last, and the tension released a little, “What is the date?”

A look came over my benefactor’s face that was an indefinable mixture of pity and remorse. The man’s brow darkened and his movements once more became furtive.

“It is October, Mr. Bradbury.” He turned and left; his voice echoing eerily from the empty door, “It’s always October here.”

Futility is a harsh companion. It sits looking on in abject hopelessness, waiting for the end to come and sweep its carcass away. Not even its fears can sustain it, for it is resigned to have no control. Futility waits only for the bliss of nonexistence, and yet keeps no hope in that. To suddenly come to the realization that; in this time and in this place, one can never know free will, is a thing that can lay waste to the soul. To have one’s every thought be only to follow along some hidden plan, to have every action long ago decided.

Could I believe in fate?

I slowly gained my feet, and rather unsteadily followed my host through the door. A long hallway waited beyond, containing several doors on the left-hand side, and a row of windows to my right. It was the view from the windows that halted my faltering steps and held my stare with more gravity than countless stars. Outside was an entire landscape of shallow hills and rock. And as far as I could see, everything was a pale, dusty red. The anxiety in the pit of my stomach grew-my knees wanted to buckle and fall out from under me!

I whispered the name, “Mars.”

This place was a restless spirit that forever haunted, it was a load so heavy to bear; it spilled over into my writings. My thoughts raced as memory traced my grappling with this angry war god. I had to cry out in the written word that someone please help, help me carry the yoke that was the Red Planet, my tormenter. The crimson plains beckoned to me and I stood there lost in the view, for an hour or for only a minute. I did not notice the quiet footfalls of the man who had brought me here.

“Breath-taking, isn’t it?” came the heavy voice from behind me. I turned to face the old man and wondered to myself whether this man was friend or foe. Or, if maybe, Dr. Drake was the pawn of forces beyond his own control-merely carrying out the wishes of someone else. But, Mars! The shock of finding myself here on Mars fairly swept away my ability to make speech.

“Yes, yes,” Drake was looking out over the dried plains, also caught up in the overwhelming beauty, or perhaps in the chilling austerity, “It is indeed Mars. Makes one feel very, very small, does it not?”

His head turned away from the view outside and he said directly to me in a conspiratorial voice, “Of what worth is the life of one man when compared only to a planet. How can you ask one man to juggle the sun and the stars?”

“Or Mars,” I finished. Dr. Drake broke from his spell and smiled at me.

“Yes! Good! Or Mars, indeed!” he agreed. And with that said there was nothing left.

It was then, seated before a long and book-strewn table set with a handful of covered dishes-but with no effort at formality-in the library of Dr. Drake’s mansion on the surface of the red planet called Mars, that I found myself. I had been told that I had been dead, but now resurrected. I was sitting across from a man who claimed to be over six hundred years old, but appeared to be only in his sixties. The despair inside me welled up and broke forth with a confused torrent of questions.

Dr. Drake made no effort to stop me now. He appeared interested, and made sympathetic noises wherever they were required. All the while never slowing the rate at which the fork in his hand continued in its breakneck journey from plate to wizened face, and back again. As the tide of my questions stemmed, I noticed faintly that there had only been one plate, and Dr. Drake had fallen on it directly. His evident lack of regard for his guest’s welfare seemed odd and out-of-character. As for myself, I could only sit across from the man and gaze in astonishment at the speed with which the other ate. In between mouthfuls-but just barely-the old man began to tell the story of how I came to be there.

“You see, Ray-may I call you Ray?” And without stopping went on. “You see, Ray, you’re my hobby. Well, not you particularly, but authors in general. See, all the authors I deem worthy; I revive. And maybe even a few I don’t deem worthy, I haven’t decided yet. You are one of the first, actually, since I am going in alphabetical order. Brought back Ambrose Bierce last week, William Cullen Bryant comes tomorrow. Cervantes and Hemmingway by next week, and Poe before the year’s end.”

He went on to take a few hurried spoonfuls of soup that appeared to be made from extremely large mushrooms. He stopped eating for an instant with a look of fright and intently examined a spoonful. Then, with some palpable satisfaction, he sliced a lone loaf of pumpernickel and began dipping it in his bowl before he went on.

I seized my chance to ask, “How did you bring me here?”

“Oh, that. By the wonders of modern technology, of course.” As if it settled the matter, but when pressed he went onto say, “Oh, I’ve learned some advanced techniques. But really, Ray, I have only this one day to talk with you, and I don’t want to get in long, involved technical discussions.”

“Why do you only have one day?”

But that was all he would say on the subject. Drake continued to eat furiously, and I tried to digest what was happening to me. The old man’s frenzied concentration on his food, and his horrible table manners churned at my stomach. Contemplating the idea, I realized that I was not hungry and quite honestly repulsed by the thought of eating. Perhaps it was whatever drugs he had used to revive me, but at the time I rather chose to believe that the boorishness in front of me was the cause.. I never had another chance to find out, for soon the meal was over, signaled only by Dr. Drake dropping his utensils in a satisfied flourish. I watched as the other got up and went over to the immense desk that sat in one corner and began writing with the same intensity that he ate.

“Such strangeness,” I said quietly, at which I bemusedly thought to myself, could have described almost anything that had occurred from the time I had awakened earlier. Nearly a quarter of an hour later, we were still sitting in the same places. Drake was still scribbling franticly at his desk, and I still looked on unbelievingly. The pale red sunlight filtered through the room. In retrospect, except for that pale crimson light, the furnishings seemed very Victorian.

But enough of this! So many questions remained unanswered and this old man who claims to have brought me back from the dead pays me no attention in the least. It’s madness!

“Drake!” I nearly screeched.

“Hmm?” He peered over the top of the spectacles he wore. I smiled what I hoped was a pleasant smile and vowed not to get angry.

“If it’s no trouble, could you please tell me what I am to do here?”

“Oh, dear, I’m afraid I haven’t been a very good host, have I?” He took off the glasses and came around the desk. I was barely able to hold my tongue and tried to smile again. It probably came off as more of a grimace, but at least, I thought, I have gotten his attention.

“A drink? Bourbon, perhaps?” Drake asked as he went over to the sidebar and picked up a smallish bottle made of sky blue glass. I was inexplicably drawn to it, slowly rose, and walked over to where the old man was standing. Taking the bottle gingerly from him, I held it completely mesmerized. At first I thought it was empty. However, when I shook it-and it gurgled slightly-I was strangely relieved. Dr. Drake watched this all with a slight grin.

“Bored with life, Ray?” He asked.

“No, no,” I told him, not understanding his meaning, and reverently put the bottle back into its place, “Just curious.”

“Yes, that is just what I was saying,” Drake stated as he poured himself a drink, and then after a moment’s pause poured one for me; a drink that I was still too suspicious to touch. Dr. Drake motioned me over to the couch, while he took a large winged chair.

“It is curiosity, isn’t it? That’s what drives us. As I said, I am writing a book and that you and the other authors I am reviving are research material. Why only read about famous authors when you can talk to them yourself, was my thought,” he chuckled, and then paused for a moment before continuing. “I’m sorry if I have been rude to you in anyway, but I really don’t get much of a chance to have guests. Not many people around here, you know.”

An unreadable dark look colored Drake’s face, a look that deeply troubled me. “No. I hadn’t known. Where are all the people, then?”

“Oh, they…are beyond caring about such things… but enough of this depressing talk!” He unexpectedly reached over and slapped me lightly on the knee, suddenly brightening. “Let’s go out and take a walk in the city. You can ask me your questions there. And I have some for you as well…after all this.”

He stood, thrust his hands deep into his pockets and brushing past me, and headed out the door. As I made to pursue the strange old fellow, I noticed something I didn’t see upon entering. It was a stuffed parrot perched on a bust of what could only be Pallas above the chamber door. I recoiled-but too many odd things by half had happened already to be bothered much by that. Shaking my head, I hurried to catch up with Drake. Seeing the old man turn right into one of the doors that lined the hallway, I hastened after him.

Some of the other doors I passed were open, and those where I could view inside were filled with many strange and wondrous things. One-most recently opened, if the tracks in the dust gave any evidence-held a mock-up of a golden sarcophagus of the Egyptian type. This, for some unknown reason brought back to the surface the feelings of dread I had had since first seeing the hills of Mars through the hallway windows.

I involuntarily spun about in place, and found that Mars was still out there. Red as far as the eye could perceive: pale, pale crimson. It was the very color of dried blood. And as I stood staring the dark foreboding grew inside me with every breath. I shuddered violently and had to force myself not to run.

When, at last, I stood before the door, I turned and cast one furtive glance back through the windows at the red dunes. It was as though the graves of untold millions lie just beneath the surface, I thought as I turned the knob. Have I made my grave there? Even as I stood there I felt a presence bearing down on me. It filled me with horrific thoughts, the kind that scare you that an impulse might make you jump from a high window-just to see. It had been just on my heels, grasping tenuous fingers toward me-and then it suddenly seemed to dissipate like a cloud of mist. My fear propelled me across the threshold, and I fell against the inside of the door, as if I were shutting it forever.

When I came to myself, I saw that beyond the door there lie a flight of stairs. I ascended, and found the old man on a sort of rooftop garage; puttering over a beat-up vehicle of some sort that appeared well passed its best years of service. At the sound of the door, Drake looked up.

“Oh, there you are-almost ready!”

“We’ll be leaving in that? It hardly looks up to going anywhere.”

“Well, actually this is a fine old bird, a classic, owned by my father, who bought it from . . .”

He rambled on as I turned and put my foot on the parapet, looking out over the rolling plains. In the far distance, I could barely make out the outline of a city. It struck me as familiar some how, in fact it almost looked like Greentown.

Without taking my eyes from it, I asked Drake “Is that where we are going? To that city?”

Drake looked up from under the hood where he was working and squinted in the direction I indicated.

“What? Oh, no, that’s just an illusion. The real city’s over there,” and he hooked a thumb in the almost opposite direction. “Nope, nope, that’s just a mirage.”

I walked stiffly around the small building that housed the helicopter until the real cityscape came into full view. I swallowed on a dry throat-once again the gnawing in the pit of my stomach grew. I was still standing there ten minutes later when I heard an engine fire and backfire and finally sputter into life. Dr. Drake appeared around the corner of the building.

“Come on, Ray, you can gawk on the way there.”

I sighed, resigning myself to this fate, and climbed into the well-worn interior of the cockpit. I was seated beside a grinning Dr. Drake, who still hadn’t relayed the purpose behind his actions to any degree of satisfaction. And who was no doubt, perfectly mad.

“Here we go,” said the old man with just a little too much hopefulness in his voice. Nevertheless, the venerated engine huffed and heaved them into the air, although it seemed a strain. Once airborne, Dr. Drake began chattering once again, non-stop, as if he were trying to make up for his silence in the library. I listened, trying to discern some meaning in his words, but could not. Not that I didn’t understand the language, but that it all was a jumbled stream of random thoughts and ideas. He appeared almost to be reciting from some odd script-and whenever I tried to stop him, he simply ignored me.

Soon, the flight mercifully was over. Drake piled out of the cockpit, and thankfully stopped yammering. I climbed down more slowly to join him on the sand-blown desert floor. We had landed on the outskirts of a small city, consisting mostly of small villas around the outer edges, and tall, fluted spires clustered in the center. While seemingly man-made, the architecture had foreignness about it, some strange quality that made the air feel weightier, and the mood more somber.

“It’s beautiful,” I whispered softly to my companion.

“Oh, don’t worry about your voice.” Drake’s words seemed a near shout by comparison, “Sound doesn’t affect them. They’re neither that old nor that fragile.”

I had to turn and give my host an appraising look. Even though the knowledge put me more at ease, I was unsure whether I liked the idea-around such graceful beauty, it did not seem right to talk loudly, or without a certain reverence. Drake, for his own part, seemed unmoved; and went on talking at great length on things about which I cared nothing.

Dr. Drake led me to a bench in the center of the spires and sat down. Before us was a small tiled pool, filled with the seasonal rain. He began to speak again, in that disjunctive, convoluted way. So, there we sat as Drake filled the air with meaningless words, and I unable to say anything in between. If the man has taken the trouble to make me live again so he could do research, why doesn’t he ask me questions about my life, about the work I did? And yet, as he droned on, I noticed that some of the words he spoke caused intense but fleeting sensations of deep nostalgia. The sounds and views faded from before me to the point that I forgot utterly where I was, but instead flitted about from this memory to that. Sensing again that smell of the house where I grew up, marveling that all the old places took on a yellowed look like old photographs, sucking in a sharp breath as the pedal slipped away from my sneaker and scraped down my shin for the first time that summer… How long this went on, I am unable to say, and I barely noticed when Drake had stopped talking.

He smiled at me, and I couldn’t think what it was that we had been talking about. I suppose it hadn’t been important. It was so peaceful here-the slight wind making alien melodies as it blew past the tall spires. I could stay here, I thought. I couldn’t remember why I had been so anxious before. So, out of respect for the man who had returned the breath to my lungs, I would remain here in this quiet place and patiently await any questions he had for me.

And quietly we did sit there until, late in the afternoon, Drake glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s about time for you to leave; I’ve got to get you back.”

“Where am I going?”

“Oh, no where, really, but I still have to prepare you for the next author.”

“I am to meet him then?”

“You’ll get to know him intimately,” returned Drake with a gentle smile.

I had nothing to say to that, but the tension in my stomach knotted ever tighter. On the way back to Drake’s mansion, the old man was withdrawn and silent-as though he had run out of words. As we set down on the roof top of what I now saw really was a Victorian mansion setting incongruously on this Martian hillside, Drake turned to me. He had his right hand inside a pointed object-a weapon of some sort, I supposed. It made a low, insectine whine as he brandished it at me. I felt little fear now-I had somehow expected it.

“I’m sorry, Ray, I really am,” he said as he pulled the trigger.

When I swam back to consciousness, I was back on the table just as I had been this morning. Only this time I was unable to move, but not from nausea-my body simply refused to obey the urgent orders of my mind. A groan escaped my lips and from somewhere behind me I heard Drake’s voice.

“Please don’t alarm yourself, Ray; it will all be over soon.”

“Why can’t I move?” I strained.

“I have disabled all access to your motor functions.” He walked around to give me what I’m sure was meant to be a kindly look, which made it all the more hideous. He picked up my arm and let it fall back to the table. “See? It’s really better this way.”

I must have screamed. For, in the midst of my horror, I had caught a glint of silver on the underside of my arm as he lifted it from the table. A small, metal placard was embedded in the underside of my wrist. Engraved upon it were a serial number and the word Fantoccini!

But that means…all of the other authors…I began to weep.

“Why can’t I stay?” I asked finally.

He gave me a pitying look and placed a hand on my shoulder. “Because there’s only one android like this…and there’s no one left to build any others. They’re all gone. Took off in their rockets-all of them! Returned to Earth to fight the war…I refused. I wouldn’t go! And then the messages stopped coming in-there was no one left alive. Only me!”

He threw his hands into the air. “Here, on this dead planet-I am the last Martian. Who can know how long these longevity treatments will last…” He was muttering now, turning back to the instruments beyond my view.

At these last moments, a serene clarity dawned in my mind. In a way, I felt more pity for him than I did for myself. I now understood that I was not really here. It was just an illusion-how can one be sad to lose an apparition? But Drake…I knew something about him that I felt sure he did not know about himself. Throughout all the ramblings, during the entire day as I was with him, never one time had he hinted that he knew the truth. How could he know? Would he even survive the revelation?

As he had touched my arm, I had seen the one element that made this madness complete. His own serial number was only one digit higher than mine.

I could only hope that Bryant would be happier than I had been inside this body electric.

13 Mar

Keith McQueen Saves the Universe (On a Day-to-Day Basis)

Keith McQueen Saves the Universe (On a Day-to-Day Basis)

© Joseph Baxter

“It’s going to be one of those days,” Keith McQueen said to himself upon waking.

Keith sometimes had feelings in this way-well; more that he had inklings of designs greater than those to which he was a party. But whatever name is put to them, two things remained steady and true. Only he seemed able to perceive them, and they invariably turned out to be harbingers of consequences most dire.

It always started off slowly at first, with merest clues and minor hints. But once set in motion, the power of the occurrence collected and it began to build, and build, and pile slightest precognition upon hesitant intimation until there could be no doubt left in Keith McQueen’s mind that the balance had come due. Many things had already, this particular winter’s morning, clued-in the feckless Keith on what kind of day it would come to be. Some of these were indefinable, such as the way the cobwebs in the corner wavered gently with the room’s imperceptible air currents.

Others were, however, more tangible. The first of these, and probably the most damning, was that the floor was extremely cold to the touch. Keith became aware of this in short order as he swung his thick and callused feet from out the warm refuge of his be-quilted bed. Such a shock it gave him that he could not help but yip loudly and jam the numbed legs back into the haven of the sheets. Only after several minutes of nursing and the alternate warming application of sole to calf did he have occasion to realize what this meant.

“The floor’s too cold,” he whispered wide-eyed with a quiver playing about his lips. Hearing out-loud the accusation hammered the full understanding home-and, in his surprise, Keith even went so far as to repeat himself, “Oh, no… The floor’s too cold!”

A challenge had been issued as surely as if it had been a glove slapped to his face. Keith fell back on his bed and stared fixedly at the ceiling for solace-no matter that he would find none there. The cards of destiny had been dealt, and he knew he had no recourse, no means of control over what would happen next.

And how well he knew that which would happen next-the faucet in the bathroom would be dripping steadily. Oh, he could easily read the signs. The Evil was gathering that morning for yet another duel-he could only hope his meager art was up to the encounter. A deep, dark foreboding welled up inside Keith’s prone form. To his very core, he hoped against all hope not to see that dread faucet. Anything but that…

Wait a second, thought Keith; maybe I don’t have to see it at all. The force of this revelation sat Keith up in bed as only a revelation can to someone who is unaccustomed so to them. “Yeah, that’s it, I won’t go into the bathroom,” he said it aloud as a show of defiance. But only seconds after his voicing of the thought, Keith’s smile fell. For light had dawned and unable to delude himself further, Keith McQueen’s resolve shattered about his feet. It was simply this: Just because he wouldn’t see the faucet dripping didn’t mean that it wasn’t, and that therefore that it wouldn’t bring about utter catastrophe.

Keith sank back into his bedding once more.

“Why me? Why is it always me?” he implored of the four walls.

But he would get no answer. For it was him. It was always him. He held the lone responsibility. Only empowered to he himself was the strength to haul humanity up from the simmering cauldera below. Only Keith McQueen had the finesse to inch mankind back to that perfect balance, ever maintained. For he alone had the talent to fight the endless contest that would never be won, but at the best, merely tied. His was the mastery of the game of cunning subtlety. It was a game of unceased equilibrium-pull too hard and the tenuous thread might snap, and thereby plunge man down into abyss unfathomable.

The sole weight had once again fallen on his shoulders, as it always had. Even when he was young, his heart was already scared with the battle. From the first, he knew the burden he would bear-although unwillingly. Regardless where he ran, Destiny caught him up short, pulling him ever back; back to face his vocation, his place. Himself a pawn.

To say that it all had started almost benignly would be a monumental understatement. It had been every bit ordinary. Just another morning for the young Keith, one where the early summer’s sun causes the mind to laze, hiding in the dewy dampness of the fleeting shade. If not for Keith’s coming to awaredness he might be lazing there to this day, if, indeed, there would be still days to laze in. For on that day Keith saw it. The one thing so blatantly obvious and yet gone so unnoticed.

The error disastrous had been committed, and that threat to all was in the hallway leading from young Keith’s room. A closet door; left standing at an angle. But not just any angle-it was an angle wholly at odds with its environment, Keith realized. It was not wide open, nor was it left as it normally was: anywhere from being totally shut to standing open a few inches from the jamb. It was at some alien point in-between, betwixt the position of open and that of the upward limit of being closed. Standing at a point completely unrevealed to less-seeing individuals. It was this that Keith noticed and thusly saved all humankind by shutting the offending door completely and with a resounding slam.

It was a quick action-arguably inconsequential-and Keith sought to put the matter behind him. Thinking it to be an isolated incident (some tiny, noisome, leak from beyond the hinterlands of this natural universe), he forgot all about it. Or at least, tried to.

But no matter what he did, everything led back to that door. It gave a purpose for existence, and yet somehow sifted away freedom through his clutching fingers. A slave to his duty was he. And yet, nagging doubts tugged at his heart in the late night hours. What if he hadn’t seen that door, would his life be different? Would there be life at all? Anywhere?

As it was, the confrontation at the door had only been the first of a life full of exposed traps and thwarted disaster. Each time the visitation was more and more clever, each time a little harder to mete out. And now… Now it was approaching what Keith feared may be the limit of his power to contain it. Victory now was dear, and he paid a heavy toll for each.

Keith broke himself from his reverie and wearily proceeded to pry himself out of bed. With the heavy spirit of a man condemned, he made his way into the bathroom. Until he stood there in front of the sink, chest heaving, his worst fears realized. The faucet was indeed dripping.

And quite steadily…

His hand, seemingly of its own accord, reached out and tried at tightening the knob, but, of course, it was no help. No simple solutions would be had that day. The battle would again be hard fought.

A sudden sensation pierced Keith’s mind and tore his gaze away from the faucet. He looked up and around him at the walls, the mirror, the tub; as Fear tightened its clutching fingers around his heart. Everything was wrong; it was all wrong, wrong, wrong. The towels were just a little too crumpled, the mirror a bit too clear. Everywhere he looked, things were clouded in cursed incorrectness. His fevered mind could not take it; his knees weakened and gave way.

“Too much, just too much,” Keith cried weakly as he crumbled to the floor. And there he sat, propped against the linen closet, huddling in upon himself-his knees up under his chin.

There he sat, as wave after wave of self-pity washed over him. For all was lost, he knew that now. Even with full use of his varied talents, Keith McQueen knew nothing could be done. The sabotage was by half too complete. There he sat, staring blankly at the tub’s drain, counting the countless ways he had gone wrong. Silently watching the water drip into the pool formed there over the night…

A puddle?

For the first time in the near quarter of an hour Keith had sat there, he truly saw what he was looking at. The stopper had been in the drain all night, causing several inches of water to collect in the bottom of the tub. A grin came over his lips, followed closely by some insistent chuckling, and Keith McQueen sprang to his feet. He smiled coldly at the faucet.

“Ha! I’ve got you!” came his indictment. “You thought you could win it once and for all. You thought you could cover everything over and trick me into giving up. Well, it almost worked, but you made a mistake, didn’t you?” He paused for breath. “You let a flaw slip by, and now I have you.” He clenched his fist tight by way of gesture.

This returned his chuckling, although this time it had about it decidedly sinister quality.

He was a little put out that his declaration failed to have the desired effect-the faucet continued to drip, if now a bit falteringly-but Keith knew he had been heard. With this knowledge and his purpose firmly intact, Keith left the bathroom-head high in the victory to come.

The battle, however, was far from over. Keith still had to set the great many subversions to right. A comparatively simple task if he could pinpoint the key-that being center of all the ill doing. The encompassing disease, of which the lesser acts, such as the dripping faucet, were mere symptoms. If he could find that key, he could topple the entire framework of evil his adversary had built, as surely as if he pulled the topmost stone from an archway. But where would it be hidden?

The kitchen seemed as good a place as any to begin his search. It was the farthest room away from the bathroom that still contained plumbing, and it, therefore, was the most likely place since now the bathroom was plainly not.

Keith wore caution as his cloak at entering the fouled room. One mistake made here and the result could be disastrous, he told himself over and over. One step out of line and all was lost.

“Maybe it would be better to think this through.” Keith said to himself, and then with sudden urgency, looked carefully around with eyes narrowed-fearful that the wrong someone might be listening in. Everything seemed to be in order. Of course, when battling an unseen adversary, it rarely matters whether things seem one way or another. Keith’s unique experience points out that the things that remain hidden are always the most dangerous.

Still, silence might be a prudent measure. But then, so would be a plan of action. If only he knew with certainty for what it was he was looking.

It was time for observation, then. Keith warily stepped into the room. While standing in the center, he reached behind his back, took a chair from under the table, and settled into it. All this done while his eyes darted furtively around the room, seeking the barest hint of trouble.

So, there he sat, his brow beetled in thought, his watchful eyes casting suspicious glances in every direction, and still no closer to knowing what to do.

He then suddenly realized that as long as he sat in the center, he would have his back turned to at least one wall. Who knows what evil might be wrought there in the absence of his wary eye. He thought for a moment and then tried pivoting his chair slightly so only the room’s corners were directly in front, and to the sides of him. He settled back once more, satisfied that no walls faced him from behind-until it came to him that his back was now turned on a corner. That would certainly not do-in fact, it might even be worse.

Time to try a new tact. Maybe he had had the right idea after all, and he was just going about it the wrong manner. Keith picked up his chair and placed in one corner, facing out. There. A vantage point where he could see all that occurred in the room-except what went on above his head! He tried looking up, but then something might happen from underneath his chair!

Keith, in his justifiable anger, threw the chair across the kitchen. He had had enough of this pointless posturing. It was time for action.

Well past time, Keith agreed grimly with himself.

He made a quick inventory of everything in sight. Table, chairs (one now resting pitiably on its side), counter, oven, cupboards…

The cupboards! That was it.

Before he even knew he was doing it, Keith flew to the nearest, ripped open the door, and began to throw kitchenware hither and thither. High over his head they arced away in his two-handed intensity, and clattered loudly to the floorboards behind him. When the present one was emptied, Keith turned his machinations to the next one in line. And so the next, and on, and on. The steely set to his face never for one instant softening-until his arms grew weary and there were no more pantries left to empty. He staggered to the middle of the room and collapsed in near exhaustion onto the fruit of his labor. Looking for all the world as if he were forever marooned on a desolate island of crockery in the hardwood ocean that was his kitchen floor.

When he had finally caught his breath, Keith McQueen wearily gathered up the pots and plates. He knew then what he had to do. The only thing he could do. He slowly and determinedly began to stack-a steady hand was called for-casserole onto saucepan, deep dish onto fryer, and layer upon layer. Only a symmetrically perfect pyramid of pots and pans would preserve posterity and serve to somewhat stem the seething tide. And so, he set out to build just such a monument.

It took him nearly two hours to get it right. And after staring for a brief while in self-congratulation, Keith paced back into the bathroom in triumph. The impact of what he saw there took away his breath.

The faucet was still dripping!

Keith’s eyes opened wide as his mind registered the shock. He stood helplessly shaking his head. How can this be, he asked himself. I did everything I had to do. It should have worked-it couldn’t help but work! If nothing has changed, then I have been wasting my time…

“Unless I was meant to waste my time!”

Keith’s eye turned to read the clock. Eleven forty-eight. Almost noon: the anti-witching hour. If he was going to do something, it had better be now. For soon the point after which he would have no control would pass, and he would be utterly without recourse. The events of the day would turn on unaltered.

Keith’s despair cost him two minutes (for he was a man of deep emotion), and it was now eleven fifty. His mind was screaming: Do something do something do something. He scrambled to the kitchen. But what now?

Pots a trick. Obviously the most concealed. The sink was plainly too obvious. Be clever clever clever. The second most obvious place, that’s the one, always hide in the second to the most obvious…
He looked quickly around. Droplets of perspiration were forming on his brow.

Eleven fifty-six. No time! Appliances. Not the clock, the lack of time is-oh no! Fifty-seven-think think! The stove’s out, too much electricity-don’t look at the clock, concentrate-not the blender, too mechanical-fifty-eight-it has to be the Cuisinart or the toaster oven. Cuisinart or the toaster oven.

Which one?

Eleven fifty-nine. Decide!

Keith stood in the center of the room, Cuisinart on the counter-top to his left, toaster oven on the one to his right. He stood there in feverish indecision as the second hand swept inexorably upward.

Twenty-five seconds.

Twenty. Fifteen, and the decision made. Keith McQueen, with every ounce of effort left in his body, leaped to his right-The toaster oven!-and jerked out the plug with both hands. Minus three seconds, two, oh please, minus one, and finally noon. The clock seemed to hang there, frozen in time-each one of it’s long and graceful hands pointing skyward . . .

And then with quiet demeanor: twelve o’clock plus one second… Twelve o’clock plus two seconds… Plus three.

The world did not end.

The tension held in Keith’s face relaxed; everlasting doom had been circumvented once again. The release was so total that Keith McQueen fell down to his knees and wept. The battle was won, but never the war. Keith McQueen had long since learned to live with the knowledge that with each new morning brings with it a trial. Each day a test, a new searching for a chink in his armor…

Hope against all hope that it is never found.

Some, who live only to disparage, would say that paranoia is its own reward. As for the rest of us, well, we’re just glad Keith McQueen works at night.

30 Aug

Efficiency Expert

“Efficiency Expert” by Edgar Rice Burroughs is a very entertaining story. I recommend reading it. More importantly, I recommend downloading it from the above link and using Microsoft Reader to read it for you.

00_reader_opening

Look, there’s a lot of stuff out there that I’d like to read, but who has time. My employer seems to think that I should be doing the work they want me to do for like, what, 8 or 10 hours a day? I mean, in the face of these unreasonable demands upon my time, what kind of investment can I really make to books?

Well, Microsoft has come to the rescue. You have no idea how desperately you need Microsoft Reader. Seriously.

I can honestly say that it can make the most mundane administrative tasks whiz by. Whenever I’m faced with hours of brain-dead configuration or editing, I fire up Reader and put on my headphones. The odd Microsoft voice actually does great with pronunciation (better than the LH voices, IMHO), although it does take some getting used to…However, after a few minutes I don’t even notice. And with an endless source of free novels from The Gutenberg Project, I’m set.

Except for one thing. Gutenberg stuff comes down in ASCII text. And I need a .LIT file.

Well, with Microsoft Word Plug-in for Reader, I can reformat the text to LIT in a matter of minutes. I really need to create a macro to do this…matter of fact, I may do that and post it later.

Anyway, download a book from Gutenburg, and open it up in Word. Since this is for my own personal use, I strip out the legal stuff from my lit files. The examples I provide here, by the way, are NOT for distibution–and PLEASE don’t create them this way if you wish to distribute them later. Now then, on separate note to the Gutenburg Project: Please get it together. Place all that junk at the end–PLEASE!!! It is only of interest to those within the project team–the rest of us just want to read the story and hate looking for the beginning amidst a blithering onslaught of comments and notations.

And quit with the carriage returns!!! What is this, 1992? Sheesh!!!

Secondly, I select all and change the font to a Times New Roman. Please stay clear of the sans serif types, they look cool, however, for long term reading fonts with a serif are easier for the human eyes to identitify–thus upping the reading WPM.

Now, to deal with those carriage returns.

Click on Edit | Replace or Ctrl + H. Ad the parameters ^p^p in the Find field and /az/ in the replace field. You can use whatever you like there, however, /az/ is unlikely to be found in the “wild”, so it’s a safe bet. Click Replace All. This marks the place of all the actual Paragraphs.

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Now we will take out all the extra line feeds and replace them with spaces. You can’t see it from the picture, but there is a “space” in the Replace field.

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Next, we’ll put the paragraphs back in. Find all the /az/ placeholders we put in, and replace them with a ^p^p. That gives us a pleasing double-space between paragraphs.

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Cool. Do any other editing you like…but you’re kinda wasting time if text-to-speech is the goal. Now we’re ready to convert. Click the little reader icon that was installed from the Word plugin of which I spoke earlier.

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Fill in the information correctly here or it won’t appear in the Reader library properly. Annoying.

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And we have an ebook, folks. No flash photography, please. Put on the cans, and hit the play button. Now I’m ready to change a single parameter on several hundred servers…one-by-stinkin’-one. Or install my monitoring package to each machine on a new customer’s network.

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BTW, I highly suggest the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs as well. Pure, fun, ray-gun science fiction. Have fun.