Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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by Jack Skelter

Ethan Laurence stopped typing and got up from his battered teak writing desk. He had heard what sounded like a lynch mob approaching his rundown cottage, and was about to unlimber his hunting rifle from its cobwebbed nook when, through an open bay window, he glimpsed a backfiring '68 Chevrolet Camaro careen into his driveway.

Ethan swung the front door open and beheld a thin, bespectacled man attempting, without much success, to extricate himself from the driver's seat.

"Morning," Ethan said. Upon hearing the Chevy driver's desperate grunts, he added, "Need any help?"

The lanky man brushed away a greasy lock of hair from his eyes. "No, thanks, I think I -- ". A sharp click and a sudden opening of the car door brought him crashing to the ground beside the red Camaro.

"You okay, Bill?" Ethan said as he helped his friend up.

"Yeah," Bill replied as he adjusted his glasses. "Forgot to take my seat-belt off, that's all."

Ethan pocketed the smile tugging at his lips. "Well, come on in and sit a spell. Have you had any breakfast yet?"

Bill sat on a small table beside Ethan's desk, hungrily munching a slice of buttered toast while the heavyset writer bustled about in the tiny kitchen.

"So, what's up?" Ethan asked as he set down a plate of fried bacon and scrambled eggs and two steaming mugs of black coffee on the table. "How's your job doing?"

"Fine, thanks. I'm working on a new software package -- it's all hush-hush, so I can't really talk about it." With a grateful sigh, Bill finished his toast, slurped down half his coffee, and tucked into his bacon and eggs. "And yourself?"

"Oh, not too bad. But," Ethan shrugged, "I do have a bad case of writer's block: I've got this great story trapped in my head, and I just can't seem to put it down on paper properly." He waved his mug towards his red Olivetti and the crumpled wads of paper littering his writing alcove.

Bill wiped his mouth with a napkin and brushed some crumbs off his wrinkled shirt. "You're still using a typewriter? It's the twenty-first century, for crying out loud! Buy a laptop. You can get the pre-owned ones cheap these days."

Ethan shook his head. "You know how I hate using computers -- goddamn soulless machines. Betty, on the other hand," he said, walking over to the Olivetti and running an affectionate hand over it, "has character."

"Well," Bill said, "it seems like ol' Betty's getting you nowhere fast." He nodded at the huge pile of manuscripts moldering underneath the teak desk. "How long have you been writing -- I mean, since you became serious about it?"

Ethan pursed his lips. "About two years."

"How many stories have you sold?"

Ethan scratched his chin and stared at his mug. "None," he said.

Bill did not reply; they sat together in silence, drinking coffee and listening to the jaybirds chattering in the woods.

Eventually, with a final glance at the pile of manuscripts, Bill stood up and carried his mug and empty plate into the kitchen. When he returned, his eyes were sparkling and his jaw was stubbornly set into what the writer jokingly called "Bill's muley mode."

"Ethan, we've been best buddies since fourth grade. Even though you were bigger and faster, you always stood by me. I'll never forget that. I reckon it's time for me to return the favor."

Ethan reddened and began to protest -- that Bill owed him absolutely nothing for their friendship -- but the gangly programmer held out a resolute hand.

"Come visit next week; ninish," he said, and -- with an gawky wave -- tripped out of the cottage, leaving the writer with a bemused look on his face and a slowly-cooling cup of java in his hand.

####

A week later, Ethan swerved into a tree-lined driveway and parked his rusty VW Beetle behind Bill's Camaro. Clad in a tattered T-shirt and faded jeans, Bill stood waiting outside his modest slice of suburbia.

"Millie still okay?" Ethan said as he poked a thumb at a dust-caked moped parked inside the garage.

Bill grimaced and said, "Millie's a lot more user-friendly than that monster," indicating the Camaro.

Ethan laughed. "And there you were, nagging me to buy a laptop."

The two friends chatted idly as they stepped inside the programmer's cluttered house.

"C'mere," Bill said, tromping down the steps leading to his basement workshop. "I wanna show you something."

Ethan followed him down into a big room crammed to the rafters with computer gear; his eyes flicked over videogames, dot matrix printers, desktop computers, laptops, joysticks, hard drives, computer mice, programming manuals, optical scanners, interface cables, and whatnot. He whistled as he picked up an old Atari 2600 E.T., the Extraterrestrial game cartridge.

"Say, Bill -- why d'you keep all of this crap?"

Bill snatched the cartridge off Ethan's hands and glowered at him. "They're not crap: they're collectibles."

"Okay, buddy," Ethan smirked. "Whatever you say."

Bill stopped before a tarpaulin-covered workbench. A squarish object bulged underneath the canvas sheet.

"You ready?" he asked.

Ethan shrugged. "Sure."

The programmer theatrically whisked away the tarpaulin and said, "Ta-da! What do you think?"

Ethan raised an eyebrow. "It's a white plastic box with a couple of wires running out of it."

"Not so elementary, my dear Watson," Bill said, unperturbed. "It's a mind-writer."

"Say what?"

The programmer pulled out a rickety stool and sat his writer-friend down on it. "A mind-writer, Ethan; now, hold still while I hook up the electrodes to your cranium."

"You -- you're gonna jack my brain to that thing?" Ethan sputtered. "You're crazy!"

"Correction: ingenious," the programmer prattled as he attempted to stick the electrodes' suction disks onto the writer's temples. "This won't hurt you one bit; trust me."

"Wait," said Ethan as he held Bill's eager hands at bay. "What does your contraption -- this 'mind-writer' -- do, exactly?"

Bill rolled his eyes. "Remember what you said about writer's block -- about how you couldn't put down the story inside your head on paper? Well, by converting your thoughts into words, this baby," he said, nodding at the plastic box, "takes care of that."

Ethan raised another eyebrow -- higher, this time.

"And you're seriously expecting me to believe you?"

Bill shrugged. "'The proof of the pudding is in the eating,' the saying goes; shall we give it a try?"

The childhood friends wordlessly locked eyes. Finally, Ethan released Bill's hands.

"This won't be the first time I've sat as the guinea pig for your crazy inventions," Ethan grumped as he allowed Bill to stick the suction disks onto his temples. "I've still got the scars from your goddamn 'teleportation' machine back in sixth grade."

"Well, we almost won the science fair, didn't we?"

"It was the 'almost' part that nearly killed me," Ethan said. "But let's get this over with."

"Right." Bill felt behind the plastic box and flipped a switch. "Feel anything?"

"No."

"You're not supposed to. But seriously, I want you to close your eyes and think about an empty, white space."

"Okay."

"Now, keeping your eyes closed, visualize a vivid scene from your story; the clearer, the better. Got it?"

Ethan scrunched his face. "Got it."

"Great -- hang on to that for a sec." A red light on the plastic box lit up with a soft beep, and Bill flicked a switch that connected the device to a laser printer set up nearby.

"Okay, that's it," said Bill as he removed the electrodes from Ethan's temples; the writer blinked his eyes and rubbed his forehead.

"Boy, that sure was an interesting waste of time," Ethan said.

Bill handed him a printout.

"What's this?"

"Read it."

Ethan read:

Lance hefted the damaged stuttergun and shoved it inside the space-ogre's mouth. He pulled the trigger -- and winced as wet globs of ogre-flesh spattered onto his plastic visor. He wiped the mushy mess away, retching spasmodically as the blood-soaked entrails oozed through his gloved fingers. He sprinted towards the bridge railing and jumped down onto the space cutter's heaving deck, drawing his vibro-sword just as his armored feet crunched on the lumbering craft's pitted metallic surface.

"Wow." Ethan looked from the printout to his grinning friend. "Amazing." He carefully reread the page. "Needs a bit of a polish...but, Bill -- this is absolutely clever!"

Bill smiled and bowed like a circus magician.

"The mind-writer is at your disposal, my friend; please consider it as belated recompense for the teleportation fiasco twenty four years ago."

Ethan grinned back; but after a long moment, his smile faltered. He stood up and gently handed the printout back to Bill.

"I'm sorry, buddy, but I can't accept this. I know you mean well, but it's...unnatural; it's not right."

The programmer gaped at his friend, thunderstruck. "W-what do you mean? It's your story; your thoughts -- it's not like you're plagiarizing someone else's work."

Ethan gave him a small, patient smile. "Bill, a writer thrives on creative challenge. Part of that challenge lies in finding the right words to give life to one's tale. A writer needs to grapple for these words himself -- and not rely on some machine to write them down." Ethan slid a beefy arm around the programmer's scrawny shoulders, "I know you put in a lot of work on this gadget, and I do appreciate it, but if you know me as well as I think you do, then you'll see that it isn't for me."

Bill glanced at the printout and set it down on the workbench. He nodded, crestfallen.

"I -- I understand."

Ethan drove home, haunted by the image of Bill standing on the sunlit driveway, sadly waving goodbye.

####

Two months had passed, and Ethan was wading through a stack of mail that he had recently received from various publishers.

"Well, Betty, it seems we have our work cut out for us," he muttered as he read and binned the familiar, pro forma rejection letters. He was about ready to throw the whole bunch of them away when one of the letters caught his eye.

"Dear Ethan," he read aloud. "We are pleased to inform you that we have decided to purchase your story..." He was up in a flash, whooping loudly as he danced around the room waving the letter. He sat down again, trembling with excitement; but as he read the rest of the letter, his face fell; his smile faded, and his brow gradually creased into a frown.

He reread the letter several times, stood up, and angrily shoved it in a back pocket. He grabbed his car keys and stormed out of the cottage. He jumped into his Beetle, cranked it up, and sped off towards Bill's house.

####

The Beetle screeched to a halt at the top of Bill's driveway. Ethan jumped out of the car, stomped up to the house, and banged a meaty fist on the front door.

"Open up Bill: I know you're in there."

After several seconds, a quavering voice called out.

"Ethan, is that you?"

"Yes; now open up and let me in."

Ethan heard the rattle of bolts being drawn back; soon enough, he saw Bill gingerly open the door.

"Come on in," Bill said. He stepped into his messy kitchen and asked, "Would you like a cup of coffee or anything?"

Ethan ignored him and slammed the door closed. "Bill, does the name Anvil Publishing Company ring any bells for you?"

Bill hung his head and shrugged. "Maybe."

Ethan slapped down the publisher's letter on top of a pile of pizza boxes.

"Would you mind telling me how you were able to finish and print out one of my uncompleted stories and submit it -- without my involvement?"

Bill knocked over a can of instant coffee, spilling the contents all over the kitchen floor. "I -- I don't know w-what you're talking about," he stammered.

Ethan cracked his knuckles and put his hands on his hips. "You were never a good liar, William Argyle Matheson; now, c'mon: spill the beans."

The programmer gulped and hung his head. "Well...w-when you last used it, the mind-writer s-saved a mirror image of your c-creative alpha-wave brain patterns onto its m-memory core, and..."

"Are you telling me," the writer snarled, "that you used your stupid machine to churn out a manuscript -- without my permission?"

Bill shot Ethan a pained look and blurted out: "Y-yes -- and I s-sent it to Anvil!"

"God -- no, no, no," Ethan groaned and slapped his forehead. "It's my story, but it's not my manuscript; it's your godforsaken machine's manuscript -- that's what it is!"

The programmer's eyes welled up with tears. "I'm sorry -- I just w-wanted you to get published. You're my best f-friend, Ethan..."

At this, Ethan's eyes suddenly misted; he breathed hard, blinked several times, and slowly unclenched his fists as his rage, by degrees, ebbed away.

"You're my best friend too, Bill," he sighed. He sidled up to the trembling figure in the kitchen and tapped him on the arm.

A wan smile creased Bill's pale lips. "Y-you're not upset anymore?"

"No, buddy," Ethan said. "I really can't fault you for trying to help. I've got a lot of explaining to do to the publishers, but for now, let's go down to your basement: I want you to do me a big favor."

The writer and the programmer clomped down to the basement workshop and looked at the mind-writer sitting on the workbench.

"Remember the time I snuck out of computer class, and old Mr. McKenzie caught me running in the hallway with spaghetti sauce all over my shirt?" Ethan asked. "What excuse did I give him?"

Bill looked at him and grinned wryly. "That it was your evil twin."

"Precisely; I don't want to have an evil twin of mine bouncing around that plastic box like a trapped genie, waiting to spew out more of my stories at a button's push." He handed Bill a large hammer. "You know what you have to do."

The two friends exchanged intense stares. Beads of sweat broke out on Bill's furrowed brow. At last, he lowered his eyes and nodded grimly. He lifted the hammer, and brought it crashing down onto the mind-writer. Its fragile plastic casing shattered, and -- after a few more hefty blows -- it was soon reduced to a smoldering heap of smashed circuits and tangled wires.

Ethan gazed at his friend with renewed respect. He beamed and clapped him on the back. "Attaboy. Now, how about we grab something from Bucky's? I'm starving; I'll wait for you in the car."

As Ethan's heavy footfalls faded upstairs, the chagrined programmer threw the hammer down on the concrete floor. He shuffled towards the door. But before turning off the basement lights, he paused and stole a glance at a big cardboard box containing high-capacity, hardwire memory chips.

Bill grinned: Ethan might've skipped their grade school computer classes -- but he sure didn't. He was glad that he had always obeyed the Golden Rule of Programming that doddery old Mr. McKenzie had so painstakingly inculcated into his impressionable protégés.

Always keep back-ups of your files.

THE END


© 2009 Jack Skelter

Bio: Jack Skelter is an Auckland-based lawyer. He was, at various stages in his life, the managing editor of a campus newspaper, a part-time magazine writer, and a fame-hungry lead guitarist before getting sidetracked into law. Now an easygoing bass guitarist, he is aided and abetted in his musical and legal pursuits by his gorgeous wife, two beautiful daughters, and their ghostly white cat.

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