"We like camping better!" --Raymond Alexander Kukkee

view of the north shore Critter Pond, KOA Canandaigua NY [c] 2009 jcb

Short Stories: A glimpse into the Future

It snowed today, [he wrote]. Another six or seven inches of lovely, white powder. I have to dig out my skis from the closet in the garage. Wonder if they need sharpening? And which drawer did I stow my wool socks in? Can't miss out on this perfect ski day. I'll have to call in sick, or take a personal day, or something. Hope my ski jacket still fits, after all that gorging at Thanksgiving...

"No, no, no. That won't do at all," he said aloud. "I don't feel like skiing today. That's silly."

He leaned back in his cushy office chair, just short of the tip-over angle. Yawned. Scratched his lightly-stubbled chin casually. Sat up again, elbows on his knees, and is this a glimpse of the future? Desert landscape, stock photo
took a deep breath. Dry, air-conditioned air filled his lungs. His chest expanded, lightly straining the fabric of his fabri-cotton tunic. He scanned the windowless room with hooded eyes, deep brown eyes with flecks of amber.

His gaze wandered, as it always did, from feature to feature, touching each like a familiar talisman. Seeing his bunk, unwrinkled, pillow squared and fluffed. Next the nightstand: brass lamp, simple clock, his watch, picture of Elena perched at its customary angle. Shifting his glance to the kitchenette, plasti-stone counter gleaming. Toaster there, stainless steel, spotless. Food-maker sitting beside it, ready for any instruction. Coffee-pot rested next in line, quietly warming this morning's fresh pot.

He looked last at his door, the portal to his little chamber in this sprawling complex. He stood and stretched, yawning again. Paced absently, eyes on the floor, not seeing the grid-lines formed by the imitation tiles there.

He took a sip of coffee, turned back to the desk chair, and settled himself again. Fingers on his temples, eyes closed. He drew another long breath, held it, then released it slowly through his nostrils, listening to the various clicks and hums in his room and in the surfaces around, above, and below him. Heard the barely audible hiss of machine-air from the vents, a constant sound that mostly passed unnoticed. The tiny fan-whir of his world-hub harmonized with that noise, too. If he held his breath briefly, he could make out the more distant sound of other doors opening or closing. Someone laughed a few rooms away. In another corridor somewhere a phone-summons chirped. Just the usual sounds of life in the underground. No alarms today, thank God. The writer resumed his earlier chore.

I cross the courtyard to the stable, [he wrote]. My old scuffed boots scatter the dusting of over-night snowfall as I approach the door. I notice one of the braces needs mending; then Chaz is there, stepping around the corner of the weathered structure. His cigarette sags between his chapped lips.

"Are we riding today, Boss?" Chaz asks. He seems eager, and a little hesitant.

"Chaz," I reply. I nod, smile, crinkling my eyes against the sun-glare behind my ranch manager.

"You sleep okay?" I ask him. I shift my belt-buckle where it chafes against my belly.

"Sure, Boss," he says. "Sure. Stove's workin' fine again. An' Eddie didn't eat no baked beans last night, neither. That helped the air som'at." Chaz likes to drawl and clip his words, to sound more like the rest of the hands. He came from back East, after all, so it can't be his real accent. I don't mind; he's a good man and a better shot with a pistol than any of us.

"Gather Randy and Joe Fenton, and a half dozen horses," I tell him. He offers me a smoke, and I take it for later, stowing it in my shirt-pocket. "Thanks, Chaz. I'll assemble some gear. Jenny's putting together some basic grub. Coffee's on, too."

I open the stable door and step into the morning gloom of filtered sunlight. Hear the murmur of hello from the big chestnut two doors down the aisle. I turn right, creak another door open and step into the tack-room. I grab a saddle rig off its peg and haul it out front to the rail. Then back in for another. Randy hustles in to help me, whistling some unnamable tune like he always does. Randy's still limping from when that damn Goldfire stomped his foot last week in the paddock, but he doesn't complain.

Fenton stops me for a moment on my third trip outside. His hat's so low on his forehead I can't see his eyes. Joe likes to pretend he's a man of mystery; he says it works with the ladies in town. Not that Joe needs any help in that department.

"Whadduh we want fer guns, Boss?" he asks me, his voice raspy and whispery for no good reason.

"Side-arms, Winchesters, one long-gun for Randy. Extra bullets, 'specially for the rifles." That's what I tell him, but he knew that already. He likes to check with me, I think, just to show respect. I like that in a man. Fenton steps off to round-up the weapons just as Chaz returns, leading the first three horses on tethers.

"Sadie-Girl's lookin' poorly, Boss," he says. "She's wheezin' somethin' terrible. Better leave her here, huh? We ken take Miss Patty instead, I figger." I smile and nod to show Chaz that's fine. We can spare a mare or two left behind. I remind myself to have Jenny check on Sadie-Girl later, just to be safe. Might have to fetch the vet, if she doesn't improve soon.

I step lively back to the house for coffees. Hold four mugs in my fist, watching the steam swirl around them. Our little posse's almost ready to ride. As I pass out the hot drinks, I nod at each of my men and make eye contact. We hunker down beside the horses and tackle for a minute, each of us sipping our brew. I take a twig and begin to draw a map of the valley, to show the boys how we'll scout the terrain. Put an "x" where I figure the rustlers are holed-up, and we chat about which ways to come in around them and how to catch 'em off guard...

The writer jerked upright in his chair, snatched from his reverie by a voice nearby. He looked to the door and saw Elena standing there, hands on her young hips, smiling.

"Come on, Daddy, time for breakfast. Let's get moving, before all the "eggs" are gone," she said.

He glanced at the monitor briefly, thought the word "Save" insistently, and watched as the words he'd composed in his mind were stored for a later time. He flashed a toothy grin at his daughter, and stood up smoothly, stretching his long arms as if he'd actually been typing. The eggs weren't really eggs at all any more, of course, but they were tasty and they went fast. The "bacon," on the other hand, had been lousy lately. Something minutely wrong with the current software, he supposed.

He grabbed his mug of coffee off the counter, held it up toward her in question. She smiled again and nodded. Elena liked real coffee, too. Who wouldn't? That muck from the cafeteria couldn't hold a candle to his special brew. He poured her a cup, added some powdered stuff to it, gave it a stir, and handed it to her. Took her other hand lightly, and they stepped through his door out into the complex. They chatted softly as they walked toward the food wing, nodding hello's to others along the way.

Two thousand feet above them the old world remained as it had been for nearly a century. Barren, lifeless, forbidding. The winds still blew incessantly as the dense cloud-cover shifted above the wasted landscape. Pivoting remote-controlled cameras watched the unchanging features left behind. Other instruments repeatedly sampled various readings, updating charts and graphs in the complex far below. No one expected to return to the surface anytime soon, but it was good to keep track. For the future.

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