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Retro Rocket – My Short Story Submission to the WPL 2015 Ray Bradbury Creative Contest

Space Fantasy Stamps

Against the black infinity of space, a rocket-ship floated like a blimp above a long and gradual curve of the Red Planet. The ship’s bulging hull, like a mirror, gathered what could be seen–the field of stars, the distant sun, the rust colored horizon–and reflected it all back.

Inside the rocket’s nose-cone, two figures in bulky spacesuits sat side by side, their white helmets facing the fore of the ship, their dark visors reflecting indicator lamps, and their thick-gloved fingers floating before an array of knobs and switches.

The silver ship slowed, nosed up, then began its descent to Mars. The rocket descended vertically, a reverse of its liftoff from Earth. Fire-columns thundered from nozzles at the ship’s bottom. The blaze of orange and yellow pushed against the Martian ground, stirring red sand into a billowing cloud through which the ship set down on the planet.

The engines quieted, and silence filled the ship. As the astronauts awaited their signal a speaker crackled with a voice, “This is Mission Control calling Vegas Station. Sandship One has landed.”

Beyond the upright rocket’s porthole the night sky glimmered with pinpoints of bright white, but one shone a brilliant blue. The captain didn’t notice, but Lieutenant Ellison did. He used a scope to magnify the object, and discovered that the brilliance came not from a star but from a faraway planet with oceans of blue brightened by a more distant sun. Ellison gazed in awe of Earth.

On Earth a small town slept as streetlamps shined orange onto tree-lined lanes. In the dark, dewy lawns lay in squares formed by sidewalks, and the walks leading to concrete stoops. Above each stoop, a single porch-light lit the front door of a brick home.

Atop a shingled roof towered an aluminum antenna. It gathered radio waves and routed them down to a cool basement, dim and unfinished. There an aging man in a thick sweater sat at a wooden table before a shortwave radio. From the metal console a cable curled up to a pair of large headphones cupped over his ears. Through the headset a voice crackled, “Mission Control to Vegas Station. We’ve delivered your astronauts. Captain Borges, you and the lieutenant get some sleep. At dawn we’ll commence the Mars walk.”

This transmission stirred the old man from his daydream, in which he saw the landing like those in the sci-fi movies of the nineteen thirties. Hearing the radio transmission assured him that now, men really would walk on Mars. He’d been waiting for it since he was a boy and wanted to be part of it. So he clicked a radio button and pulled forward a tall, chrome microphone and spoke, “This is Waukegan-One calling Sandship One.” Then he listened through the hiss and hum and squeal for a response, but the voice that came next came from behind him.

“Dad?” His middle-aged son in jeans and a t-shirt called from the bottom of the stairs. “Dad!”

The old man pulled off the headphones and swiveled around, his face feeling warm as he realized his son might have heard him. “You startled me. You’re back from the library already?”

“I’ve been back for a while. What are you doing?” The son rubbed his own arms. “It’s cold down here.”

The old man’s embarrassment went away. “Using this radio is my nighttime routine. Do you know it works as good now as when I built it fifty years ago?” The old man’s blue eyes became blank for a moment, then the spark returned. “How was the presentation?”

“It was fantastic! The author discussed his book about the Mars mission. Tomorrow he’s touring the control room in Nevada. It’s from there that Borges and Ellison operate the mechanical astronauts.”

Though the newspaper reported for months that the mission would be unmanned, the father rejected the idea. “Mechanical astronauts?” That’s no way to explore Mars! Man himself must take the ride, step off the ladder, feel his boot sink into the red dust. When life on Mars is discovered, Man must be there to look it in the eye!”

The son smiled, familiar with his father’s retro temperament. “Like in that vintage sci-fi poster over your desk?” The son continued, trying to be kind. “Dad, you know rockets don’t land backwards. And ladders don’t slide down from under their fins.” Then he shook his head, “And as for looking a Martian in the eye…there’s no life there. The probes and rovers confirmed that.”

The old man mocked, “The probes and rovers confirmed that.” Then he protested, “Technology has ruined it! The remote missions, the imaging, the Internet and its interactive globe of Mars. All this destroys our imagination, destroys the possibilities, destroys the wonder!”

The son appreciated his father’s sentimentality. “Dad, come upstairs. We can watch the mission together. This one is different. The mechanical astronauts let us see through their eyes.”

“Nah.” The old man dismissed the offer. “I won’t watch. But I’ll be up in a few minutes. First I need to write some notes about what the radio picked up tonight.”

The son’s steps on the wooden stairs echoed off the basement walls, and the old man turned to the console. He put the headphones on, reached for the dial, pulled forward the chrome microphone and whispered, “Sandship One, this is Waukegan Station. Confirm Martian sunrise.” Then he continued a little louder, “Captain Borges. Lieutenant Ellison. Time to commence the Mars walk!”

The old man’s mind resumed the movie. He imagined his message being converted into radio waves, sent up through the antenna into the still night sky, up into space where a planet shined red. On that world, rising above its rust colored horizon, the white sun silhouetted the standing rocket-ship. From it, a ladder slid down. Then an astronaut in a bulky spacesuit descended, and stepped back from the last rung onto the Martian powder. The figure turned from the ship and began to walk. It paused, knelt down, pulled off its glove, and plunged its hand into the soil. The astronaut brought up its cupped palm and let the red sand sift through its fingers.

“Dad!” The son called down from the living room. “It’s started. Ellison’s astronaut has stepped out of the lander.”

But the movie continued in the old man’s mind. The astronaut stood and removed his helmet, then his mouth shaped into a scream and his eyes grew wide, as he came face to face with a Martian.

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Freedom Stream

Freedom Stream Color

In the year 2100 the Social Health Office sent a technician wearing gray scrubs to the one room apartment of twenty year-old Diego, and fitted him with a tiny receiver. By the end of the fifteen minute visit, as the technician gently sewed a single stitch into the back of Diego’s head, the Freedom Stream hit a milestone: Every resident of the city connected.

In his room with no desk or bookshelves, Diego smiled and called out, “Yes!” No more looking at the wall-screen or holding a blue-glowing device. Now, right into his mind streamed the popular songs, videos, movies, and shows.

Outside Diego’s apartment, traffic lights showed black. Since the second economic collapse fifty years prior, no traffic moved on the streets. Diego and most other citizens didn’t work. The city provided each resident with food, and a person rarely went out. The Freedom Stream deadened everyone’s curiosity about the real outside.

But the technology had glitches. And the next morning when Diego woke up he did not experience the relaxing wave sounds of the Stream. Instead he heard nothing. Silence, unfamiliar and unsettling, panicked him. So he immediately acted to restore the connection. Diego moved closer to the source which he knew to be atop the nearby, hundred-story, redbrick smokestack.

He left his unit and walked across the road, picked his way down the neighboring ravine’s brush and trees, and stepped over the abandoned rails to the lakefront. There Diego discovered a moored pontoon which buoyed a rust-colored steel container once used to transport goods. Its opened doors revealed attached shelves holding thousands of well-preserved books.

An unkempt, seventy year-old man appeared on the boat and looked at Diego, at his brown eyes of curiosity. The old man could tell that Diego’s connection to the Stream had been interrupted, that for only a few minutes the young man would be able to listen.

“Hello! My name is Amit. These books contain the unique thoughts of individual men and women. Each book is different. Each is a snapshot of the person’s thoughts at the time they wrote it. Unlike receiving the barrage of the Stream, reading a book is hearing a person’s thoughts in a way you control. Reading allows you to pause, to think about what you take in, to be aware of your reaction. The binding, paper, and ink let you feel the book, truly hold it.”

Diego stepped back from the stranger and thought of an excuse to get away. “Sir, I cannot read. They closed all the schools and libraries before I was born.”

Amit heard this from others. “I will teach you to read. And as important, I will teach you to write.”

“But today there’s nothing to write with. Nothing to write on.”

“I wrap twigs in foil and put them in fire to create pencils. I write onto scraps of paper. Seeing my thoughts in words amazes me. To have my own thoughts, to choose which ones I share, and to choose the words–that is human. The Stream takes that away.”

The Stream now crackled in Diego’s mind, the reconnection was starting. He felt unsure about the man and his offer. But he wanted to know more. Diego reached to the back of his head–for the stitch.

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Freedom Stream – A Very Short Story by Jim Janus

Selected as Winner of Waukegan Public Library’s 30th Annual Ray Bradbury Creative Contest (written-adult category)

Contest theme, from the WPL website

“Waukegan-native Ray Bradbury and author of Fahrenheit 451 understood the importance of reading, writing, and education to a successful society, saying “You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” Bradbury saw the slow destruction of books and the written word and was fearful. In Waukegan, not only do we see the rising popularity of eBooks, acronyms, and textspeak today, we live and work with those who do not even have the foundation of basic reading and writing skills in English or in Spanish. As the written word continues to disappear, the future of libraries, literacy, and free access to knowledge is uncertain. In your contest submission, please consider a future without the  written word. What would society look like? What would happen if your freedom to read and learn disappeared? How do you feel about banning books?”

Freedom Stream <— Click here to read the story

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The Robin

The Robin
He put the two spoons into the tray in the kitchen drawer, folded the dish towel over the oven’s handle, and turned to the living room.

“Thanks for dinner,” he called to her.  “Your vegetable soup is always excellent.”

She smiled and settled down into the loveseat, leaning her back against one armrest.  The sun brightened her as it moved lower behind branches and changing leaves.  She liked to watch the birdfeeder at the back.  Yesterday morning two faded cardinals perched on the corner post of the wood fence.  One peeping, as the other hopped to the feeder and back with the dark seed.

Now there were no birds.

She rested her hand on her stomach and looked at her ring.  Then she pulled up her knees and wrapped herself in a brown blanket, her lips straight as she looked again through the large window onto the yard.

He knew she wasn’t thinking about what was out there.  He called to her, “Will you go for a walk with me?”

She turned to him, relieved by the interruption.  “Of course I will, honey.”

He said, “I first need to check my work email.”

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In the laundry room each put on shoes and a jacket.  She asked, “Where do you want to walk?”

He chose a route he thought would get work off his mind, so he could think with her about what happened in the morning.  “Let’s leave the subdivision, and go to the farmer’s field.”

She took the flashlight from the shelf.  “We’ll need this for the way back.  It gets dark early now.”

They walked down the driveway into the cool, graying evening.  Before crossing the quiet side-street each felt for the other’s hand.  In a minute they turned onto the half-mile stretch of road that ran north, alongside a line of trees that screened the county bike trail.

He said, “I like this road.  The old trees on both sides, all the way to the end.  And I like that it’s straight, that it rises and dips a little, like a real country road.”

“And I like the rabbits,” she said.  She pointed to a gray-brown, furry lump.  It was still, and facing into the trees by the trail.  “He thinks if he doesn’t move we won’t notice him.”  Then she called sweetly, “We see you!”

She added, “I like the trees too, especially now with the colored leaves.  But the mailboxes.  Why are they on the trail side?  The people have to cross the street to get their mail.”

“I never thought about that.”  And he smiled knowing that what he’d say next wouldn’t satisfy her.  “Maybe the village wanted the boxes on the same side as the telephone poles.”

She liked when he made up answers for things.  But she let him know when he didn’t come up with a good one.  “They’re simply on the wrong side.”

Behind them the whisper of a car’s tires on pavement came closer.  They moved over to the narrow strip of gravel.  The car passed slowly and continued on.

“At least there aren’t many cars,” he said.

They became quiet in their own thoughts.  He looked toward an open garage with tools covering the inside walls.  She, at fall flowers in a garden near the road.

As they continued to walk, he said to himself, “Telephone poles and mailboxes.”  Then out loud, “It’s easy here to imagine it’s the seventies.”  He started to daydream and said, “Simpler times.”

They passed a house that, like the others, sat far enough back from the road that a group of old trees could spread their jagged limbs over the large front yard.  A long, gravel driveway bordered one side of the property and gave some weathered, undriven cars a place to be.  The small house’s front door was on a cement stoop.  Next to it stood a tall aluminum pole.  At the top the American flag drooped motionless, faded.

After the house he saw the mowed grass of the park-district baseball field.  No one was there.  In a far corner, a flat area of sand marked the infield.  The tall, chain-link backstop drew his gaze.  Behind it a line of trees screened a two-lane county route that ran the same direction as the road.  From there a high pitched trill of a squad car came and went.  It woke him up from his slide into home-plate.

“Those times seem simpler to me,” he corrected himself, “because I was a boy then.”

She looked at him and smiled.  “I’d like to have seen you as a boy.”

“A boy,” he repeated in a whisper.  Then he spoke in the serious voice he used when talking about his job.  “They’re cutting costs again.  I won’t get the new position.”  Then with a gentle voice, the one he used to ask her for help.  “Why do I stay at that place?  Twenty-five years under fluorescent lights.  My back to the window, the kind that doesn’t open.  Each day is the same–the building won’t let in the season.”

She wanted to say something, like if she owned a company he’d be CEO.  She knew he did well at his job, and hoped with him for a position where he could do more.  But she also liked that he came home at dinner.  She squeezed his hand and said, “I’m sorry, honey.”  And after a pause, “Maybe that new position would have been too much.”

On other walks they wouldn’t hold hands the whole time, but this time they did not let go.  His hand stayed warm because she was holding it.  And at that moment he thought only of her, that she cared for him, that she encouraged him to appreciate family, that she encouraged him to pursue his creativity.

She went on, “Today Agnes asked me to take her to the club.  Years ago she’d pass the time there since Joe was putting so much into his career.  They never had children.  She said they didn’t want kids.  Now there’s none to look in on them.  They need me to take them to the doctor, to help them around the house.  I cross their street to bring in their mail.”

He thought of their being old one day, sitting together at home.  No doorbell.  No ring of the telephone.  Emptiness.

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At a half-mile they reached the road’s end, the T at the east-west street.  They crossed to the field.  It was lined with stubs of dried cornstalks.

He looked up slightly, into the distance as far as he could.  Low in the west, pink wisps of clouds glowed in front of deep blue.

“The sky,”  he said, “It’s so big here.  So open.”

She too liked the view there, especially after sunset.  “It’s beautiful.”

He looked into the field.  “Last Saturday I saw them having a bonfire and hayride over there.  Boys and girls laughing and screaming.  Really having a good time.”

She smiled.  “Makes me think of when I was a girl.”

A group of robins fluttered among the top branches near the trail.  She looked at them and forgot the rest of what she was going to say.

He’d never seen her pay attention to robins.  She would look for birds that were harder to find.  “What is it?” he asked.

“I just had a memory,” she answered.  “When I was a girl, I would walk with my older sister to and from school.  One time it was spring and we were going along the path through some trees.  On the ground I found a tiny blue egg.  It was cracked and empty.”

He started to say it’s not unusual, but stopped.

“When I stood up, just a little higher than me I saw the nest.  And poking above it, I saw the head of the mother.  I remember her eye, round and black.  She was staring at me like she knew the egg was gone, like she knew there was nothing she could do.”

He put his arm around her.  She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her shaking.

She sobbed.  “I told the robin that everything would be okay.  I told her she would have others.”

He hugged her and listened to her cry.  And he began too, in his chest and throat and eyes.  He swallowed.  Then he said quietly, “We’ll try again.  Like the doctor said.”  They held each other for a minute as the sky became a deeper blue.

A single screech of a young great horned howl came from the trees.  Then, overhead, the silhouette of the mother’s outstretched wings glided silently into the woods.

He said, “Let’s go back.”  And before crossing the east-west street each felt for the other’s hand.  She felt hers become warm, because he was holding it.

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