Monday, September 23, 2013

Employment Opportunities

The older man gave Constance a possessive hug and then held her by the shoulders at arm's length.

"Let me take a look at you, Connie," he said. His voice was strong, deep, powerful. It reminded Marcus of politicians, men who use power the way he used a toothbrush: casually, habitually, and hopefully over the sink, because he was likely to make a mess.

Once the elder Fembrieaux had finished his inspection of his daughter he released her shoulders. He didn't just let go, though. He stroked both hands down her upper arms, paused briefly at the elbows, continued almost to her wrists, before he gave them another squeeze and, slowly, released them.

Marcus had seen lovers be less solicitous. From where he stood, slightly to Constance's right, and a step behind, he couldn't see her facial expression, but the nape of her neck, exposed by the elegant bun in which she wore her hair this evening, was flaming red.

"Po... poppa, I want you to m... meet Marcus," Constance stammered. She never stammered. Not even when she was so furious with him that she was at a loss for words. When that happened she just stared at him until the words would come again, and then the floodgates would open with a deluge of words. But Poppa had her at a loss.

"Sir," Marcus said. He decided not to offer his hand. Instead he made a brief nod of his head.

"Yes," Mr Fembrieaux said. "Connie told me to expect an introduction."

The three of them were standing in front of Cote du Maine, the most exclusive restaurant in town. Mr Fembrieaux had made the reservations, and Constance had warned him, "don't fuck this up," in such tones that Marcus was fully prepared that he would fuck it up, no matter how hard he tried. His only choice would be the manner of fucking up, and he was looking for likely opportunities.

It wasn't that Constance had impossible expectations of him. But she had very specific expectations, and figuring out what they were was the challenge. Afterwards there would have to be a fight, apologies, and explanations, but Marcus knew these things came with the territory of Constance. They were a constant, as he was fond of thinking, a steadying hold in a twisting, confusing, ever turning world, and part of why he loved her.

And he'd never call her Connie.

"Well, well," Mr Fembrieaux looked at Marcus as he might a runty puppy with a broken tail that his daughter brought home. "Let's go inside and get seated, shall we?"

The waiter that lead them to their table was wearing a fitted tux. The aisles were wide. There was a live string quartet playing quietly in a corner. They had no music stands. Marcus expected that they were paid better than top tier members of the local symphony. The menus they were handed had no prices.

Marcus had been debating if he should spend a long time perusing the menu, or if he should quickly pick something and then face the firing squad. Mr Fembrieaux, however, made the decision for him by ordering in quick precise sentences, and all without even glancing at his menu. The waiter nodded respectfully, collected up the menus again, and left them to their threesome.

"I am impressed, sir, by your knowledge of this establishment's menu," Marcus said. Mr Fembreiaux's eyebrows rose.

"I went online before I came and decided what we would have," he explained.

"Of course," Marcus said and smiled. "I believe they have a very palatable Chateau Rothchilds, 2005. Do you mind if I treat us to a bottle?"

Marcus had never been here before, and Chateau Rothchilds was about the only high brow wine label he knew. He picked 2005 out of thin air. He only hoped the bottle wouldn't bankrupt him.

"I'm sorry," Mr Fembrieaux said. "I do not drink alcohol. But we can certainly have that bottle. It'll be my treat. I insist."

That went better than Marcus had expected. He smiled at Constance as her Poppa called over the waiter and consulted about the wine. Apparently Marcus had made a good guess because the waiter bustled off to fetch their wine without complaint.

"Well, I'm glad you had the idea about the wine, especially as I hope to get to know you better," Mr Fembrieaux said. "Constance is my only child, and she is very important to me, as you can imagine."

Marcus had known Constance for almost three years, first quite casually, and for the past year rather more intimately. In all that time Mr Fembrieaux never made an appearance, though Constance received regular cards for her birthday and the other holidays that were commonly remembered by sending cards, each one arriving punctually and signed in the pretty feminine hand of Mr Fembrieaux's secretary. Marcus had an idea that "very important" in Poppa's lexicon headed a list that included regular dental checkups and getting his Bentley serviced every 30,000 kilometers.

"I understand, sir," Marcus said. The trap waiting for him here was to say Constance was important to him, as well. Marcus opted instead for rhetorical judo. "We would have come to see you ourselves, except that our work keeps us occupied every waking moment. It is good that one of us was finally able to find the time."


Mr Fembrieaux decided to abandon that line of inquiry for the moment and Marcus and Constance found themselves entertaining the old man with stories of how they met, what their crazy friends got up to, and the movies they'd seen lately, all subjects Marcus felt had been carefully chosen to be neutral and inoffensive. Safe territory. Marcus might have relaxed, but he noticed Mr Fembrieaux's hands were quietly resting on the table. They didn't twitch, toy with the silverware, or mess about with the cuff links. Yes, Mr Fembrieaux wore cuff links. Marcus didn't even know where he'd go to buy a set.

Marcus had seen cats stalking their prey with less caution than Mr Fembrieaux was setting him up for the kill. These casual stories were supposed to put him off his guard. Well, Marcus was ready.

Dinner arrived at their table, and the three tucked in. The food tasted expensive and Marcus doubled his estimate for the price of dinner.

When Marcus finally was pushing around a last bite of brandy soaked dessert, Constance excused herself to visit the ladies' room. Mr Fembrieaux merely waited for Constance to be out of earshot and pounced.

"Constance tells me you're a DJ," he said. His tone was pitched to make it sound as if he were interested, but the sneer of distaste on his face was much too visible. "I've never met a DJ before."

"Well, sir," Marcus said, "it's an interesting profession. It requires a knowledge of diverse fields, from music to marketing to psychology. It keeps me on my toes."

Marcus had thrown in the bit about psychology on a whim. He felt it was like baiting a hook with live bait, but he didn't think he had much to lose. That sneer had given away the game too early. Marcus imagined that in matters that didn't involve Constance Mr Fembrieaux had more self control.

"I understand the music and the marketing," Mr Fembrieaux said, then took the bait. "But I don't believe I see the psychology."

"Well, sir, I happen to be a lavatory DJ," Marcus explained. Mr Fembrieaux's eyebrows climbed up his forehead. Marcus meanwhile was wondering where he would go with this. He'd heard the word lavatory DJ on the radio a few weeks ago. It had been a joke.

"I've never even heard of such a thing."

"I'm not surprised. It's not well known, nor much talked about even among the people who employ me, but many of the better establishments have found that playing the same music in the lavatory that plays in the dining area noticeably reduces the enjoyment of the dining experience. So they call me to assess the situation. I gauge the dining experience, and build a play list for them that is precisely tailored to the individual restaurant."

Mr Fembrieaux had forgotten to sneer. He started to look confused. Marcus wasn't sure what was going on behind Poppa's power broker facade, but he had clearly taken control of this conversational vehicle and gone around an unexpected corner.

"In fact," Marcus put the pedal to the floor and went around the next corner on two wheels, "just last week I was checking out this very restaurant. I declined to offer them my services, though. The lavatory speakers just aren't up to the task. Currently they're being used to pipe in the live music from the floor, which is a terrible idea."

The bit about piping the live music into the lavatory was a guess, but Marcus felt good about it. He was now cruising down Snob-professional Boulevard, heading for the Freudian Parkway.

"Why is it a terrible idea?" Mr Fembrieaux seemed curiously intent on the answer. He sounded almost plaintive. Marcus wasn't quite sure how he managed to hit a nerve, but he knew better than to let off the gas.

"It's a bit of Freudian analysis, I suppose, and it has its critics for that reason, but at least one explanation is that the dining room caters to the oral impulse, while the lavatory is all about our anal selves. When a person steps from the dining room to the lavatory, and is accompanied by the same music, that entrains the two impulses and, well, you don't want people to be thinking about bathroom matters when they come back out to eat. But whatever the analysis says, from a purely statistical perspective, a bathroom that has its own correctly designed play list means more frequent repeat customers who feel comfortable spending more on their food."

"This has been studied?"

"The restaurants who employ me have made their own studies, yes. I don't know that the practice is yet common enough for larger scale studies."

When Constance returned to the table a minute later, she looked at her Poppa and at Marcus with some concern. Marcus wasn't sure what she expected to find, but it wouldn't have been a pensive Poppa and a smiling Marcus.

"What did you two talk about while I was gone," she asked.

Poppa was silent, and glanced up at Marcus, who was still puzzling how his throw-away joke had put the old man into a mood.

"We just talked about my job," Marcus shrugged. "It's all stuff you and I have talked about before."

"Isn't it interesting?" she said. "He does get to meet all kinds of people."

Constance was clearly relieved, and the rest of the evening was spent reminding each other to keep in touch and then the old man got in a taxi and left for his hotel.

"That went a lot better than I expected," Constance said.

Marcus held his peace. When he fucked up, the fallout didn't have to be immediately apparent.

A week later, Constance met Marcus at the door when he came home in the wee hours from running a dance party on the other side of town.

"Why are you still up?"

"What the hell did you tell my father?" Constance wanted to know. She spoke through gritted teeth, and Marcus knew the day of reckoning had arrived.


"He wants to hire you. As a lavatory DJ."

Now it was Marcus's turn to be confused. He did what he had learned was safest in a situation like this, and just stood there, waiting for more explanation.

"Poppa owns several restaurants through a holding company. Where we ate was one of them. Now he writes that you told him you are a lavatory DJ and he wants to hire you to design play lists for his restaurants. All of them. All over the world."

Marcus wasn't sure if Mr Fembrieaux was playing a gambit to keep him away from Constance, or if he had just invented a new career path for liberal arts majors. He did know what the right response was to Constance at this point.

"Constance, will you marry me?"

Sunday, July 7, 2013

What I Did on My Summer Vacation

I didn't feel much like a test pilot, I can tell you that much. Maisie told me I looked heroic. I was wearing my static shedding lab coat, Sid's bicycle helmet, and we were kind of counting on my glasses to be as shatterproof as Cheap Spectacles claimed they were. I had tied a couple of elastics together to help hold them in place. Yes, I know, in hindsight it must seem ridiculous, but there was no way we were going to pass up this opportunity to send the first human being to another star, and back, and do it all in time for dinner.

The capsule sat in the middle of our laboratory, with Professor Srinivan's office chair bolted in front of the controls. Well, the controls consisted of the discharge button for the capacitor bank, and a keyboard to run the camera controls. Since my life was riding on this, I'd double checked the calculations. The capacitors had enough power to do the trip twice over, so on that account I was feeling confident. If step one worked, then step two also would work.

I gave my partners in crime a final look around, a thumbs up, and climbed into the capsule through the unbolted hatch. We had put a couple of air tanks inside, with enough air to last me four hours. I listened as Sid bolted the last panel in place. Maisie waved at me through one of the scratched Lexan windows. Then Sid knocked three times, the signal we'd agreed on.

I hit the kitchen timer we had taped next to the discharge button. At one minute, I hit the discharge button the first time.

It was anticlimactic. It was dark out of most of the Lexan panels. There was a bright red light shining in through one of them. It made using the keyboard very difficult. I heard the servos buzz in the silent capsule, though, so I figured the camera was doing its programmed turn. After a few seconds the buzzing stopped. I squinted at the kitchen timer. Not quite two minutes. I poked the button again for the return trip.

And nothing happened.

The red light outside remained unmoved.

The hell of it was, this thing was supposed to work. I had done the math dozens of times.

And yet I didn't even smell so much as a hint of burned insulation.

I groped at the button. My fingers followed the wire across the board to which it was taped. That's when I realized the wires were loose! I quickly found the heavily insulated plug on the end. By touch I managed to find the socket, plugged in the button, and returned to Professor Srinivan's chair. After a moment's hesitation, I punched the button again. Something seemed different this time.

And then the capsule was falling.

I grabbed the arms of my chair. I was falling! The falling didn't stop. I think I must have started screaming about then. At least I have a dim memory of someone screaming, and there wasn't anyone else.

Exhausted, I found myself on the capsule floor, hugging the chair's seat with my arms, my legs wrapped around the chair's base. I was still falling, but it had become hard to breath. I had to punch the button again before the air in the capsule became unbreathable. With effort, I unclenched my arms and legs and maneuvered around the chair. Something smelled bad. For a short moment the thought of facing my colleagues like this overwhelmed everything else.

But somehow the thought of them brought back my sanity. I remembered the experiment. Of course I'd be weightless. I didn't know what had happened earlier, but it couldn't have been a trip to Proxima Centauri. We'd figure it out later, but in the back of my mind I suspected Sid of playing a practical joke. With some effort I reached for the keyboard. It was floating above the board on which it had been sitting. I had to hold it in my lap to be able to type on it at all. After entering the camera command again, I listened for the servo. The sound seemed the same as before. If I assumed that the first time I had never left the lab, then this time the capsule was falling through space near Proxima Centauri, in a vacuum. Sound transmission from the servos would be strictly through the walls of the capsule.

The light seemed to be as bad as the first time. I squinted at the kitchen timer. It had rolled up to its maximum two hours, after which it had stopped increasing the count. I'd been out here for at least two hours. I had no idea how much time I had left. I felt wrung out, panting as if I'd finished a long run.

Once the servo stopped I let the keyboard float out of the way and reached for the button a third time.

The chair slammed into me, and the keyboard clattered to the floor. The return of gravity was the first thing I noticed. Then the lights from the laboratory. I could hear voices shouting, then started laughing when I heard Sid knocking on the capsule. I reached over and knocked back. I stank, I was bruised, and I wasn't out of the capsule, yet. But I had been to Proxima Centauri.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Where's the Beef?

Hero worship in its unkindest form!

On Betelgeuse they worship me
as savior of their race.
The Puppeteer cheer loud hurrahs
where'er I show my face.
I cannot count the times I signed
a Kzinti's Book of Dawn.
But my butt is just a Big Mac
on the planet Alderaan.

My fame has stood the test of time
in our history books.
The statues of my frame adorn
a million honored nooks.
Aristocrats of every stripe
come up to primp and fawn.
But my butt is just a Big Mac
on the planet Alderaan.

On Alderaan they say that once
I visited their world.
I wowed them and I dazzled
every boy and little girl.
I left a bit of DNA
to clone me when I'm gone.
Now my butt is just a Big Mac
on the planet Alderaan.

I'm going back to Alderaan
to tell them that I mind.
You don't have to be a Vegan
to respect the human kind.
I know the trick: I'll show them what
I use to sit upon.
Then my butt won't be a Big Mac
on the planet Alderaan!

Filking is an artform peculiar to the science fiction fan community. Years ago, when I read Larry Niven's short story Assimilating our Culture, That's what they're doing, I was moved to write my first filksong.

And, sure, I know that Betelgeuse is a red giant star that's unlikely to have a worshipful civilization living on it, and I just made up the Kzinti Book of Dawn, because I couldn't think of a better rhyme. Maybe Larry Niven will write a story to explain what that is.