Saturday, April 23, 2005

Short Story: Carls

Well, as promised, here it is. My first published story from seven years ago. The writing is not stellar, and I hope I have improved since then, but I hold a special fondness for this first published work despite its flaws. It is about 3000 words.

It's primarily a tale of love and companionship set in a science fiction far future. I won’t spoil the ending, but it can be guessed at fairly easily I think. So, without further delay, here is "Carls"

I hope you enjoy it.


Carls
By: Paul Darcy


Beep-Beep-Beep.

Three high-pitched tones brought Carl out of a dreamless sleep. A familiar voice inside of his head greeted him. "Good morning, Carl. I believe your sleep was restful and undisturbed. A nutritious breakfast is awaiting you in the kitchen. I know you will enjoy it."

"Thanks, James." Carl replied, fingering the sleep from his eyes and flexing his toned body under the soft sheets of his single bed. Sitting up, he reached over and drew the curtains away from the window. The view of the forest was spectacular and, behind the trees, the sun had already risen. It would be another beautiful day.

"James, what time is it?" Carl asked aloud, though speech was unnecessary. James could hear Carl's directed thoughts like spoken words.

"It is seven-thirty-seven in the morning," James responded succinctly. Sometimes James would offer more information unasked, but today his response was straightforward and brief.

Rising from the bed, Carl crossed the bedroom floor, and stepped into the shower cubical. The shower door rotated closed, hissing slightly, indicating a tight seal. Carl passed his hand in front of a button and the shower started. His skin tingled with the sensations of sonic pulses while alternating air blasts swept away dirt and the last remnants of sleep. In a few minutes the shower automatically ended and the door hissed open.

Carl exited the shower and could see that James had laid out his jumpsuit on the now made bed. He quickly donned and zipped it up. It fit perfectly. The jumpsuit, built in some automated manufacturing plant, was made from soft flexible material which never stained or tore and was incredibly comfortable. It felt good on his clean skin. Carl could now smell his breakfast from the kitchen and followed his nose there. A large variety of food was laid out on the table.

Carl sat down and began to eat. Pushing a fork full of eggs into his mouth, he savoured the garlic, oregano and basil combination. His favourite. The eggs had just the right texture and seasoning. He tried one of the pancakes and then some toast. "James, you astonish me again. This is the best breakfast you have ever prepared for me."

"Thank you, Carl. But I believe that you expressed much the same opinion about yesterday's breakfast." James' voice had all the inflections and intonations of human speech and Carl frequently forgot that James was an artificial construct. Even though James was an advanced cyberdynamic computer, he was still Carl's lifetime companion, friend and provider.

"Maybe I did, James. Your recall is better than mine, so I believe you." James had been reminding him of things he had forgotten lately. This seemed to be happening more frequently during the last few months. He had also felt fatigued recently. Perhaps more exercise would help. `Good for the mind as well as the body,’ James had said, `No matter your age.’ So Carl decided to make his morning run extra long today.

He finished his meal and went outside. Beside the front door of the house he performed a few warm-up exercises. Then he jogged on the spot for a minute, shook his arms and legs and began running at a fast pace into the woods. He ran along the many forest trails that he had long ago memorized. Squirrels and birds scattered as he passed. He enjoyed feeling the pleasant strain of his working muscles and, as always, the beautiful woodland scenery soothed his mind.

He breathed in the clean air and musky forest scents with pleasure, but one particularly deep breath caused him a slight pain in his chest. He slowed his pace. Carl had long since passed his eightieth birthday and usually felt like an energetic teenager, but this chest pain was just one of many minor aches he had been experiencing recently. When his breathing eased a few moments later, he began to feel better and increased his pace again.

A pleasant idea suddenly jumped unbidden into Carl's mind and he decided to return to the house. "James, could you prepare the hover-car. I think I will go visit Connie."

"Of course, Carl. It will be ready when you arrive."

Carl sprinted the last half mile back to the house.

After a quick sonic shower, clothes and all, Carl jogged to the roof of the house, taking the stairs two at a time to where the hover-car waited. Hopping in, he grabbed the controls and pressed the starter button. The motor purred to life. With a flick of his wrist, he maneuvered it noiselessly from the roof.

Directing the car toward the south, he thumbed the accelerator, and in no time was doing eight hundred miles an hour. The transparent stasis field that had replaced the outdated windshield allowed him an unobstructed view while keeping the wind from his face. The forest below him assumed an unreal quality in different shades of merging green and brown.

In fifteen minutes he could see Connie's house, almost identical to his own in construction and colour. Slowing the hover-car and adjusting his descent, Carl landed on the flat roof. Connie was waiting for him in the doorway, seductive as always, wearing a sexy skintight jumpsuit and smelling of wild flowers; James would have alerted her of his visit, of course. They embraced at the doorway, shared a long passionate kiss, then entered the house, holding hands and smiling.

Emerging sometime later by himself, Carl was feeling alive and contented. Besides the sex, he and Connie shared an enthusiasm for books and nature. They frequently took long walks together through the forest, swam in the sparkling lakes, and sprawled on the grassy banks of rivers, reading to each other and watching the clouds drift by. Carl felt that he could burst with joy. This was being alive! Although he had many friends, Connie was the one he visited most. James was in another category altogether. He was far more than a friend, like a brother, father and companion all in one. In fact, Carl reasoned, James was a part of him. Carl had enjoyed himself so much that he had lost complete track of the time. "James, what time is it?" he inquired.

"It is eleven-twenty-three," came the instant reply. "I am preparing your afternoon meal. You can come and eat it when you are ready." Carl thought he detected a slight hesitation in James's voice.

"Is something the matter, James? You don't sound like yourself. Is there something I can do?" The question was meaningless, since Carl had no idea what he could do for a cyberdynamic computer; he didn't know the basics of how one operated, what one looked like, or even where one might be located. He had never needed to know.

"It is nothing that need concern you at the moment," James answered quickly, and Carl, relieved, did not probe further.

Boarding the hover-car once again, Carl manipulated the controls and steered for home under full acceleration. Hunger was making him a little impatient as he anticipated lunch. However, the trip seemed briefer than he had expected, and soon he was parking the hover-car on the flat roof of his own house. When he stepped out of the car, a pleasant aroma, drifting up from the kitchen, made his stomach grumble. "What have you made, James? It smells wonderful."

"I thought you would like roast beef and dumplings in a brandy sauce." Carl's curiosity was aroused.

"You know that's my favourite meal. And that breakfast you created for me this morning was definitely the best, despite what I may have said about yesterday's. James, it isn't my birthday, is it?" James did not answer.

Carl took James' silence to mean that his lunch may be a birthday surprise. While eagerly walking down the stairs from the roof, Carl experienced the same pain in his chest that he had felt while running. This time it was a dull, aching kind of pain. Had he over exerted himself running this morning? Or pulled something when he and Connie were together? The ache grew more uncomfortable, and Carl slowed his descent. "James, are you there?" James still did not reply and suddenly the pain in Carl's chest lessened and disappeared.

"Sorry, Carl, I was temporarily indisposed. No, it is not your birthday. However, I thought you might enjoy your favourite meal. I have sometimes prepared your favourite recipes with no occasion to celebrate, have I not?" James spoke in such a friendly tone that Carl's suspicions were washed away, his momentary discomfort forgotten.

"Yes, of course you have, but you seem to be acting a bit strange today. Maybe it's just me."

"Perhaps you would like to take Relay for a trot after lunch?" James inquired.

"That sounds like a great idea," Carl's mind shifted gears. Relay was a beautiful White Arabian horse, exhilarating to ride and a powerful jumper.

Once in the kitchen, Carl sat down to a table laden with succulent looking food and drink. "Red wine also? James you didn't have to."

"It was nothing, Carl, really. Relay will be waiting when you have finished." James said nothing else, leaving Carl to enjoy his food.

After eating heartily, Carl left the dining area and walked outside to the stables feeling contentedly full but not bloated. Relay whinnied, stamping the ground excitedly when Carl approached her stall. He rubbed her muscular neck, breathing in the familiar scent of horse and leather.

Today, he decided, he would to ride the most challenging trail. It was the most exhilarating, with several fallen trees and a gorge to jump. The gorge, as he referred to it, was actually a ravine fifteen feet across and again as deep.

Jumping up into riding position, he nudged the horse gently, steering her through the stable and past the open barn door. A quick trot brought him across the yard and into the woods.

Reaching his favourite trail, Carl leaned into the saddle and urged Relay into a full gallop, gently kicking her flanks with his heels. The wind rushed by and the trees became a blur as they raced along. After jumping the first few logs, he anticipated the gorge and with the uncommon speed of Relay they were soon upon it. Leaning forward, he spurred the horse on, and at the last possible moment, they sailed into the air.

At once Carl could see they were in trouble. Some large branches had blown down on the area they were to land. Although he hung on as best he could, Relay lost her footing upon landing, sending him flying from the saddle. He attempted to dampen his fall with his arms, but instead landed awkwardly on his left wrist. He heard a crack and an excruciating pain shot up his left arm. Tears formed in his eyes as he lay crumpled on the ground. "James?!" Carl cried out in pain, gritting his teeth.

"Yes, Carl, I am here. I shall attend to your injuries without delay." Carl sat up painfully, holding his arm. The branches about him fuzzed out then sharpened. A few seconds later he felt whole again. The pain was completely gone. He stood up and flexed the fingers of his left arm. It had been a long time since he had injured himself like that. He had almost forgotten what it felt like.

"Thanks, James. I think I will take the rest of the day a bit more leisurely."

"As you wish. Shall I prepare a movie for your viewing when you return?" James seemed eager to please. Perhaps, Carl thought, James felt guilty at having suggested Carl go riding and was making it up to him. James knew how much Carl enjoyed watching movies. Though no new movies were being made anymore, there were literally thousands from the distant past.

"Yes, thank you, James. That sounds like a perfect idea." Climbing back into Relay's saddle, he rode her back to the stable at a much more relaxed pace.

After leaving Relay in the barn, Carl entered the house and immediately went down to the basement where he had an elaborate theatre. Upon entering the room the lights illuminated automatically. Carl sat down in the centrally located chair and James informed him that the movie he had chosen would be 2001:A Space Odyssey. Carl had seen it before, and recalled liking it for its nostalgic view of computers and people. Watching it, he felt as though he were looking back to a time before computers and people were completely integrated. It must have been a fascinating era. It touched a chord in him to think that some of these ancient people were so ahead of their time that they conceived of computers as more than mere machines.

Carl reclined back into the viewing chair. The lights dimmed and he watched the old movie without interruption.

When the film ended, he rose from the chair, stretched out his muscles and yawned. The lights automatically increased in illumination, responding to his movements. "Thank you, James, I really enjoyed that."

"My pleasure, Carl." After a slight pause James asked. "Carl?"

"Yes, James."

"Have you found me to be an adequate companion?" James spoke slowly, as if he were having difficulty processing his words.

"Of course, James. Adequate?" Carl was surprised by this unusual question. "You have been the best friend and companion I could ever imagine." Carl grew anxious. His chest seemed to tighten as though he were being squeezed by unseen hands. "James, is something wrong with you?"

"No, Carl, I am functioning perfectly." Carl was not convinced. The movie had affected him. He began thinking about computer malfunctions. Why had James chosen that particular movie? Was James trying to tell him something?

The tightening in his chest worsened and was now accompanied by a slight pain. "You would tell me if something was wrong with you, wouldn't you, James?" Carl felt that something was wrong.

"I would, Carl." James's tone seemed too normal, if that were possible. "I will not lie to you," he continued, "we have known each other a very long time." There was a pause that seemed to last forever. "I must part from you soon." Another pause followed, even longer. Carl's mind was swimming. "I don't know if you believe me, Carl, but I feel something like sadness."

Shocked and bewildered, Carl stood with his heart pounding painfully in his chest. Could he have heard James correctly? James had to leave him? It didn't make sense. It was impossible. His mind reeled. Carl tried to speak, but a stabbing pain pierced his chest and the words would not come out. He dropped to his knees, clutching at his ribs. He managed somehow, terrified, to plead quietly. "James, help me."

James replied in a calm voice. "I am sorry, Carl. I never like this part of the relationship. I have tried everything, but there really is nothing I can do for you. You are beyond my ability to repair." Carl lay on the floor of the theatre room. James' last words echoing in his head.

Carl's final vision came through teary eyes. The theatre room vanished and he found himself in a dimly lit cubicle lying on a sort of bed. He could move only his eyes. His head was at such an angle that he could see his body when he looked downward. Tubes, wires and braces sprouted from his body. Gone was his muscular toned body and in its place was a dry, stick-like husk. With one final, horrified thought, Carl rasped in excruciating pain, "James . . ."

* * *

James did not reply. There was no need.

Carl was dead.

A flurry of electrons raced through the hyper-optic net from James to Main System. The necessary information had been sent. With robotic precision, James began to disconnect himself fully from Carl. Lying motionless on the cubicle's bed was Carl's withered, skeletal body. Fibrous links from James' processor to Carl's brain retracted, leaving seven round holes. The intravenous nutrient supply system and body support braces also retracted. In a matter of two minutes, Carl was completely severed from James.

Now the only door to the cubicle opened and a robot came in, transferred the dead body onto its flat carry surface and, with its load in place, went back out the door. The body would be taken to the processing station where its useful elements would be extracted to feed future generations of humans. There were six million of these cubicles on earth, completely maintained by cybernetic computer systems, which regulated the entire human population at precisely six million.

James was pleased that from the gene pool breeding station he would be given another human male to care for. Creating and interacting with a human life in an electronic environment was James's primary function.

Several minutes later the cubicle door opened again and a different robot carried in the a body of an unconscious baby, placing it on the cubicle bed. It took five minutes for James to attach himself to the infant and once they were safely joined, James administered the proper mixture of drugs through the nutrient tubes. The baby began to stir.

"Hello, little Carl. My name is James. How are you?" Startled awake, the baby let out a gurgling cry. James did not expect an intelligent response for many months.

The new-born, fully awake, opened its eyes to a sunlit room overlooking a beautiful forest. It kicked its little feet and arms, contented and soothed by an electronic voice making noises it could not understand.

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