Mary Sue Mode

After carrying out our intricate plan to perfection, we took the Colonel out of the prison camp through the sewers. We came out in the farmlands outside. The Colonel was impressed. "You're the best I've seen," he told the team. "I never thought that scheme with the cabbage shipment would work."

We had a celebration back at Resistance Headquarters, but then it was time to get off planet. That's always tricky.

My Dream Best Friend patted my back at the ticket counter. "This one's on me," he said, pulling out a roll of tan and blue thousand-credit notes. (My Dream Best Friend was just like my real life best friend except he was black. It was probably makeup. Why they didn't just use a black actor was beyond me. This was just a movie, after all. It didn't matter if the person playing my best friend was my REAL best friend.)

I got my ticket and got in line behind the rest of the extraction team. They went through security without a question but the nice lady at TSA stopped me. "You've been on a lot of planets lately. We have to scan you. It will only take a moment."

So I stepped to the scanner- an oak podium with crystal spikes on the corners. It scanned me. Alarms went off. I heard my real name pronounced. Crap. Computer facial recognition.

"No," I said. "That is lousy writing. I hereby invoke Invulnerability."

The guards closed in. I batted the scanner aside with the back of my left hand and started toward the departure gate, tossing guards aside as I went.

"Why are you doing this?" an old guard asked me. I paused for a minute, and decided to tell him. "I hate it when a story ends with snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. They've killed the Swamp Monster twenty times and in the last scene he comes back from the dead and rips the hero's head off, roll credits. It's lousy writing and I will NOT have my story end like that."

"I see your point."

"Good. Now go, I have a starship to catch." I set him down, straightened his lapels, and went on my way.

Just as the departure gate came in sight they closed three foot thick steel blast doors across the corridor to stop me. "Oh no you don't," I said, and detonated them with a touch. But it delayed me just a bit, and when I got to the gate the door was closed. "I'm sorry, the aircraft has pulled away from the gate," the airline agent said with that fake sympathetic smile they have.

At this point I think I lost my temper.

I walked out of the terminal in a straight line. The building was a maze of TSA security theater, Imperial Stormtrooper strongpoints, and fast food joints, so it was impossible to walk through it in a straight line without causing critical structural damage, but I did anyway. Guards and stormtroopers tried to stop me. I tossed them aside over or through obstacles, as appropriate.

I ended by detonating a fifty foot section of wall and walking out onto the airfield outside. Wisely, the Empire didn't send anybody after me.

There was a man outside in a suit and fedora. "I see you did it your way again, Kid."

"Yeah, Frank, but now I need a ride out of here."

"No sweat. Take my Ercoupe."

"Thanks! Do you know how to pull the propeller through for me?"

"No need, it's the advanced model. It has electric start." He tossed me the key and wandered off with a tip of his fedora, singing something about "Fly me to the moon."

I got into the Ercoupe and started its 60 horsepower gasoline engine. I took off across the runway; a 1946 two seat light aircraft needs much less runway than a jetliner, and infinitely less than a starship. Once in the air I reached to the bottom of the control panel and flipped the switch to fire the rocket boosters, because you know every 60 horsepower antique airplane with a service ceiling of 13,000 feet has them, otherwise it could never achieve orbit. I pulled the wheel back. The nose came up and I headed for the stars.

I rendezvoused with the starship in orbit before they warped out. When I walked into the main lounge they were setting up for my wake.

"Hey, how'd you get here?" my Dream Best Friend shouted. "We thought you were a goner."

"So did I."

"The security alarm went off. The terminal went on lockdown. There were stormtroopers everywhere. There was nothing we could do. How'd you get out?"

I shrugged. "I had to engage Mary Sue Mode."

He stopped and stared at me, disapprovingly. "That's terrible writing."

"Yeah, I know," I said, snagging a flute of champagne from a passing waiter. "But I was provoked."

A Day in the Life

As one of my co-workers said, we paid for a hot summer with that cold winter that never ended. We sure aren't getting it. It was about 50 degrees and raining this morning, expected high 56. I don't think it made it.

I was completely out of it all day. I have no idea why I was so tired. But first thing I did, I whanged my shin on something inside the Subie hard enough I was afraid the blood would damage my khakis. It is symptomatic that I can't remember exactly what I hit or how.

Work, coffee, and accomplished very little, if anything. I got through my inbox and decided what tasks I had to do, that was about it. I tried to read through some meeting notes I was supposed to review but kept nodding off.

Nothing's wrong that I know of. Some days you just can't get started.

You Have Options

For a couple of miserable years I lived in the suburbs of Detritus, Michigan. It was the Motor City with a vengeance. The Ford kids beat up the Chevy kids. Both of these gangs beat up the few miserable Chrysler kids in the school. My father didn't work for any of the car companies, so everyone beat me up.

I have often said I'm glad I have forgotten the names of everyone I knew at that school. It means I don't feel guilty for failing to make the world a better place by hunting them all down and killing them. Did I mention that these were not happy times for me?

Be that as it may, being shackled to the Auto Industry had some interesting side effects too. For example, our games of marbles involved a lot of "steelies." These were large ball bearings that shop rats had brought home as toys for their kids. I never did find out whether the name came from what they were made of or from how they were obtained.

We also had some balls, in varying marble-like sizes, made of some brown-streaked material that looked more or less like limestone. I forget what we called them. Someone told me his dad got them for him out of one of the tumbler vats at the shop, where they were used to clean materials before assembly or something like that. I shudder now wondering what they might have been made of.

We heard all the shop legends too, of how bored shop rats might hide ball bearings inside the door panel of a Cadillac going down the line, along with a note that said "you finally found the rattle, you rich bastard." Or how if one of the assembly line workers ordered a new car, in a basic version, by the time it got to the end of the assembly line it would have every deluxe option in the book. Or how, on the other hand, some poor schmuck once ordered a Chevrolet bone stock, with no options at all- and crashed the inventory computer system for the entire plant. Nobody EVER ordered a car with no options at all. Nobody had thought to program the computers to allow such a possibility.

Option-buying couldn't have been any more different from today. Today even the most basic version of most cars will have a good radio, power windows, air conditioning, and a dozen other things which were expensive options or not available at all back in the day. The auto industry has twigged that it is cheap and easy to equip base models well, as long as they're all equipped the same way, and to offer upgrades as packages. When I bought my most recent car I could have had any number of individual appearance gadgets added at the dealership, but for individual items offered as factory options I think the only two available were a moonroof and a navigation package.

Back then options were individual items, except perhaps for a "power package" which might be power steering and brakes, or other such basic packages. And you really couldn't have a decent car without buying at least a few options. An engine big enough to actually move the car, an automatic transmission, a radio (AM only), power steering, power brakes, hubcaps, all were optional. At first, even the OIL FILTER was an optional extra on Chevrolets.

Air conditioning in cars was almost unheard-of. When I saw it, it was an after market add-on unit that occupied most of the space under the dashboard. When I first became aware of power windows they were an item of disgust, since who would be so lazy they couldn't be bothered to crank down a window?

In this era where you can hardly buy a toaster or a flashlight that doesn't have a clock built in, it may seem incredible that a car clock was a very expensive optional extra. Nobody I knew got them. There was always a flat plate in the dash, surrounded by a bezel of some kind, where the clock should go, but not a clock in there. Car clocks had a bad reputation, and well they might. They would have been a battery-driven mechanical clock, and you can only imagine the reliability problems of a mechanical clock subject to the heat, cold, shock, vibration, and dust inherent in an automotive installation. All the more so because the clocks were, supposedly, more complicated than most. Mechanical clocks are inaccurate, so you had to keep resetting the one in your car. Supposedly, if you set it ahead, that would make the clock run a little faster; if you set it back, a little slower, until you zeroed in on the right speed. Clever, but crazy complicated.

By the time I was driving myself a lot of this nonsense had gone away. The only really stripped down cars on the road were Government Specials. For a while, after certain luxuries became standard equipment, the State sent their cars to a special shop to have radios and such removed. Because the generous Taxpayers would get bent out of shape thinking of state employees driving around in their AMC Hornets with air conditioning and a tinny single-speaker AM-FM radio. We had to be denied such luxuries, even if they cost nothing more; even, in fact, if the State had to pay extra to have them removed.

These days it's hard to buy a car that doesn't have a pretty good suite of luxury and comfort features as standard. These days, if the car comes standard with power windows, air conditioning, and a radio, even we public employees are allowed to use them. That's one way today is better than the Good Old Days.

Christmas Break

In the family room of a house where I lived decades ago, I am standing alone. I am toward the middle of the room with my hands in my pockets, doing nothing.

The carpet I'm standing on is a brick red-orange, a lot more attractive than it sounds. The walls are paneled but it's a high quality paneling; real walnut veneer. I can't see it at the moment, but to my right is the fireplace my father and I built, while to the left is a picture window. The drapes are open. They shouldn't be; it's pitch black outside, and bitter cold. I can feel the chill in that direction as I stand there.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the world, epochs ended and began, the world shifted on its axis, or angels spoke truth to prophets. Something like this must have happened. If not, why would this moment of standing, doing nothing, feeling a chill, be the memory that always flashes into my mind when I think of the week between Christmas and New Year's Day?

Memory is a strange companion, quirky and more than a little bit mad.
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Security

Computer security feels like this.

I want to drive but I can't. The car keys are locked inside a combination lockbox inside a safe inside a bigger safe. Each combo lock has at least 16 characters, which have to include upper case, lower case, symbols, and special punctuation marks used only in Estonian. And they can't be the same as each other in any way. And they can't be the same as any other combination I have ever used, in any of my 184 other key locks (which are all simialrly protected). And I can't write them down. So of course I get the combination wrong, and if I do, the whole thing locks up. And oh, by the way, this whole cockeyed security system was imposed on me. I didn't ask for it, I didn't agree to it, I just tried to get my keys one day and found they were locked up inside this monstrosity.

And every week they add another layer of safes, and make all the combinations four characters longer. Each.

I can't get in, I end up locking the system time and again. So I call the dealership. After giving them a large amount of personal data on the phone, which I am not supposed to give anyone on the phone, they talk me through unlocking the nested safes and getting my keys.

"I don't like this. I want to get my car keys out and go driving whenever I want."

"Well," the salesman says, self-righteously, "it's for your own protection after all. It may be inconvenient to have to go through all this rigamarole every single time you want to unlock anything, however trivial, but it would be even more inconvenient if the Bad Guys stole your car."

"That may be so, but if the Bad Guys steal my car it won't be because I didn't lock my keys in a safe in a safe in a safe. It will be because you guys keep everyone's keys in a suitcase conveniently marked ALL THE KEYS, located next to the intern's desk in the sales department. Remember how the Bad Guys walked in and stole 397,582 separate driver's keys from you, just last week."

"It is unkind of you to say that. We are working hard here. Your Security is Very Important to Us. The suitcase of keys has been moved. It is now under the Assistant Manager's desk. Much safer."

"And besides that," I continue, "the car is built so that all you have to do is run a jumper wire across the cigarette lighter and it starts right up. Your engineers didn't do ANYTHING to implement security on that car."

"Lies! The Belchfire Six is the most secure car on the market. Years of work..."

"I read how to do it in twelve different car thief websites."

"Well, maybe, but if you talk about it the terrorists win. We're working hard to fix that little problem because Your Security is Very Important to Us."

"So I don't want to lock up my car keys any more."

"Why would you want to make it easy for the Bad Guys..."

"I don't want to make it easy for the Bad Guys! I just want to be able to use the CAR I BOUGHT as easily as the Bad Guys can steal it! Your so-called security only keeps out the legitimate users, it doesn't do a thing to stop the professionals!"

"Well," he says, huffily, "if you don't give a damn about Security, I guess there's no point in my talking to you."

Water in the Gas

Nothing makes me feel self-righteously wise better than finding out that one of my silly superstitions is correct. To wit: Keep your gas tank as full as possible in winter to avoid getting water in there.

My theory (which turns out to be correct) was that much of the water in your gas tank condenses out from the air. You always have some air in the gas tank. As temperature rises and falls the air expands and contracts, moving some old air out and some new air in. Moisture comes in with the new air, condenses out inside your tank, and there you are, water in the gas.

My friend Tom, who comes from a family that owns gas stations, told me you should never buy gasoline at a station that's receiving a shipment from a tanker truck.

"Because the gas station might explode?"

He laughed at me. "No. Well, actually, if it's ever going to explode it's more likely to when they're getting a shipment, but when does that ever happen?"

There isn't, or wasn't, a downtown Birch Run because the gas station went up while they were taking in a shipment one day, but I didn't mention that. "What's the reason, then?"

"There's always sand, grit, water. You know, miscellaneous crud. There's always some of that in the bottom of the gasoline tank. When they're filling the tank from a truck it stirs up all the crud. You fill up then, you get the stirred-up crud pumped right into your gas tank."

Makes sense to me.

Once you DO get water in your gas tank, you have to put alcohol in there to get rid of it. Maybe the best way is to buy a tank of gasohol, gasoline plus 10% ethanol. Ethanol mixes well with water (that's what vodka is, maybe 40% ethanol and 60% water) and it mixes with gasoline, so burning a tank or two of that will mix the water into your fuel and burn it out of the system a bit at a time.

Sometimes I add gas line antifreeze, which is alcohol too. There are two kinds they sell for that purpose. The slightly cheaper is methanol, wood alcohol. It will mix with the water and prevent it from freezing, which is good, but it doesn't mix well with gasoline, so it won't work the water out of the system. Isopropyl alcohol costs a bit more but will make that three way water/ gas/ alcohol mixture and get rid of the moisture once and for all, so I think it's better. They don't advertise which they're using very much, though. You have to read the fine print on the bottle most of the time.

The stuff works pretty well. Witness another story a friend told me, about this AMC Hornet wagon he drove once.

The Hornet had many delightful design features, including a full size spare tire (as they all were, then) that was mounted in a slanted well in the back, under the floor. I don't know why they did it that way, I don't know why AMC did anything they did. When water leaked into the back (and some water always leaks in) it would get into that well, as the lowest possible point. But that was OK. As with many things in cars, there are drain holes to get rid of any water that happened to accumulate in there.

Fine and dandy, until the holes plugged. Rust and mosquitoes were both breeding in there.

Well, my friend took a screwdriver and cleaned out the drain hole. Got all the water to drain through the drain hole, and splashed a bit more water in there to rinse things out. Worked that down through the drain hole too.

You know where this is going. About that time he noticed none of the water was coming out the bottom of the car. What he had done was, with the paper-thin rust prone steel AMC used, he had rubbed a hole through the top of the gas tank (which was under the station wagon's cargo floor) and had put all that rust and water right into the fuel. The name of Helen Blazes was invoked with great fervor.

What he should have done was pull the tank, get it cleaned out, and probably clean the fuel lines and replace the fuel filter while he was at it. But the car was an oil-burning rust bucket and wasn't worth the maintenance cost. So what he DID do was run about three gallons of gas line antifreeze through the thing.

It worked just fine. No problems.

Time Signals

I'd guess there are still many places where the fire siren blows to mark noon and 6:00 PM. That's handy for those who don't wear watches, which is more of us than it used to be. It was even handier back in the old days where many people didn't wear watches because they didn't have one.

When I was a kid it was handy even if you did wear a watch. As they all were, mine was mechanical. As many were, it was accurate to about five minutes a day-- which is close enough for any practical purpose, if you stop and think about it. In any case it was inaccurate enough that regular time signals, to allow me to correct it, were convenient.

Of course blowing the horn at noon was a bit obsolete even then because we had electric clocks. Every so often I still hear some guy on an antiques show marveling that the electric clock he got from his grandmother still keeps perfect time. Well, all a classic electric clock does is turn at a rate exactly synchronized to the cycles in line current. (The new analog electric clocks seem to be battery quartz movements hitched to a plug in electric transformer; this is cheaper than a synchronous electric motor, I suppose, and can keep running in a power failure if it has a backup battery. But it's not smooth like the old synchronous motor electric clocks are.) A classic electric clock will keep perfect time, if it runs at all, because the folks at the power company take great care to make sure their current cycles at the exact correct rate. They're talking about not doing that any more, because so few people depend on the classic synchronous-motor electric clocks, and a little bit off on the cycle speed here causes no problems otherwise. But for now the current in your wall outlets is perfectly synchronized, and your grandmother's electric clock works just fine.

People value what they don't have. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the world of watch geekery. Anybody can go down to Wal-Mart and, for well under $20, buy a quartz watch that is so accurate that resetting it twice a year for daylight savings time would keep you on time for all your appointments year round. Do watch geeks love these marvels, these true marvels, of mass market technical brilliance? They do not. They want a Rolex or an even more costly self-winding mechanical watch, a watch that costs hundreds of dollars JUST TO SERVICE, which your'e supposed to do every year, and which exhibits a level of inaccuracy which wouldn't be acceptable in a quartz watch you got free in a box of Cap'n Crunch. But the second hand moves smoothly instead of in one second jerks. Also, unlike the brilliantly accurate quartz watches, not everybody can afford a handmade Swiss automatic watch. (And most of those who could have better sense.)

Of course the first electronic watch I can remember, the Bulova Accurtron, was advertised on TV as "Accurate to a minute a month." They gave close-up views of its second hand moving in one second ticks, touted as evidence of its unparalleled precision and accuracy. Back then not everybody could afford a watch whose second hand moved in one second ticks, so they were rare and desirable and worth the higher price.

Today any bozo can have a hyper-accurate wrist watch, assuming (s)he doesn't just rely on cell phones for time. We can also have a pocket GPS device that shows us where we are on a map, any time we need it, a technology which itself depends on accurate timekeeping. We need never know what it is to miss an appointment because our watch was off or because we didn't know where we were. (We do, but it doesn't need to happen.) It's easy to go about your business casually accepting these marvels of technology, never stopping to think that as recently as the years of my childhood a slow or stopped clock could cause a navigation error that might kill people, or might put trains or planes on collision courses-- and sometimes did.

Dear Mark and Janet

Thanks for the postcard! Good heavens, has it really been three years?

My apologies for not updating my status ANYWHERE for so long. I don't know- the sun goes away in October and I go to sleep, although I'm doing OK this year. You know, cynical twisted and bitter loner I am, I forget how long it has been since I said hi to anyone!

Thanks for caring, and thanks for checking me for a pulse. :)

Trick or Treat Anthology

Rabbit Valley is putting out an anthology called Trick or Treat. I've got a story in there. Take a look if you will! It's open for preorders.

Trick or Treat Anthology

The Tricks are horror stories. The Treats are erotic stories. Mine is one of the horror stories, of course-- I don't write erotica. Because of deep moral conviction? Nah. I just stink at it. :)

Of course that means I can't buy Mom a copy. I'm not ashamed of what I wrote, of course. I didn't do none of that there pornography smut sex stuff. No, just good old clean blood and gore and body parts flying out the windows and mass killing murder and mayhem! Good clean entertainment! George Carlan had choice words about that- about how torture and murder are considered proper entertainment and sex isn't. But like most of his words, I can't repeat them here. :)

Anyway. The stories, by classification, were written by:

Tricks:
Renee Carter Hall
Bill "Hafoc" Rogers
Ray "Stormcatcher" Curtone
Rechan
Tarl "Voice" Hoch

Treats:
Huskyteer
NightEyes DaySpring
Naomi Bellina
Whyte Yoté
Roland Jovaik
Ianus J. Wolf

It's a collection of good stories from good writers- whether or not you include me and mine among those.

My story? It's just a little tale of Teen High School Angst. You know, it can be SOOOO hard at that age to find that sense of... special... identity. To really know yourself.

Hee hee hee.