“Due By Noon,” by Jon Hakes

Dec 20th, 2014 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

“We need five words from you,” the acquisitions orangutan said.

Webley gnashed his teeth. “Does it have to be five?”


“Exactly five?”

“Five exactly.”

“I’ve got some great stuff in the one-hundred-word range.”

“Not concise enough,” the orangutan said.

“I’ve got some… just… heightened stuff, at ten and twelve thousand words.”

The orangutan peered over its glasses. “We’re not interested in your trunk novels. Not now. Not ever.”

“What’s the subject?”

“No subject. Pure creative writing. Whatever comes to you.”

“I need something more than that.”

“You’re not going to get it.”

“And how long do I have?”

“Due by noon.”

Webley ended the meeting by tying his typewriter to his feet and jumping out the window. When he wasn’t dragging around the infernal machine, he usually jumped in his wingsuit. Typewriter meant parachuting, obnoxiously colorful, and many seconds slower.

He landed on the street in front of Godman’s, unstrapped the typewriter case, and ran for the back of the line. Like all lines in the city, it was long. Like all lines in the city, it moved quickly.

He ordered a simple coffee, which the server at the counter poured from one of the many cast iron pots sitting on the kitchen’s fire pit.

It was hot inside the coffee shop, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care any more than usual. He was a miserable sweater. Sweating, in any amount, made him miserable. He was currently floating at his baseline misery.

There was a band in the corner, playing some rusty, jangly notes that irritated his ears. He took out the old sound-deadening headphones his father had scavenged for him during a salvage vacation many years previous and put them over his ears. Ensconced in precious, primordial silence, he fed a dirty, slightly-wet piece of paper into the typewriter, mostly-blank side up, and steepled his fingers, trying to focus on something he didn’t know.

Without entering anything like a creative trance (if such things existed), he typed: “We are all just dust.”

He stared at the paper for a long, long time, trying to divine anything all about the quality, meaning, etc. of the words. Finally, he decided that he didn’t hate what he had typed. He typed his name at the bottom of the page, along with the date and time, then packed up and ran outside with the precious paper gripped in one fist.

The only way down from high offices like those of Publishing House, other than the stairs, was wingsuit or parachute. The only way up, for package or writer, other than the stairs, was catapult. No one took the stairs because it was a tremendous drain on efficiency. Also, the stairway landings were usually rented out as apartments.

Webley ran over to the nearest package catapult. He fished a dollar out of his pocket and handed it to the attendant. The attendant took the money, dropped the piece of paper into a launch-case, and, after a few precise seconds of measuring up the shot, launched Webley’s submission up to Publishing House. It was not quite 10:00 AM.

Webley waited because he knew the response would come back quickly. Five minutes later, a launch-case whomped into the basket next to the package catapult. The attendant handed back Webley’s submission.

The acquisitions orangutan had scrawled, in red ink:

“Too vague. Too clichéd. Not concise enough (“We are” can be contracted down to “We’re,” which shows weakness in the five words you’ve chosen).

Not relevant to any of today’s Scenarios. Good luck placing this piece elsewhere.

Please submit again. All submissions for morning Scenarios are due by noon.
~Editorial Staff.”

The end of the second paragraph was a joke on all writers. Publishing House was the only game in town. “In town” equaled “anywhere.”

Webley allowed himself the ten seconds of Rejection Anger his brain used as a gateway for moving on. He snatched up his typewriter case again and whirled to head back to the coffee shop.

As he was accelerating into a run, he noticed a newcomer at one of the human-cargo catapults aimed at Publishing House. It was Henderson.

The catapult fired and Henderson rose in a sharp arc toward the Publishing House entrance window. For a moment, Webley convinced himself that he wouldn’t make it, that he’d be splattered across the wall like a blind pigeon. Then it was clear the Henderson had slipped into the right aperture, and Webley was once again running toward the coffee shop.

It had been a futile wisp of a daydream, of course. Catapult accidents did happen, but they were extremely rare, and tended to instantaneously drive catapult companies out of business. As a result, the existing companies tended to be very good at what they did. So it was foolish to have wasted any time hoping/thinking that Henderson wouldn’t make it.

The fatuous jerk was certainly already speaking with the acquisitions orangutan, getting the assignment, preparing to come back down and get to work. Webley didn’t mind losing to any other writer on the planet. If Henderson won the day, Webley didn’t know if he would be able to cope.

The coffee shop had no spare seats, and the line to the counter was even longer than usual. Webley immediately turned around and ran down the street, searching frantically for a nearby alternative. He caught sight of a dog park across the street, a place he had never noticed before. He dodged cars and ran up to the fence.

The park was chock full of people and dogs. Even a few cats dressed as dogs. Such cheap and implausible costuming was overlooked by the authorities, who knew that even cat owners needed some space of their own every now and then.

Webley employed one of his most successful tools for creating space in the city: the standsit. He set his butt on the pointy slats of the iron fence and came to a faux-sitting position.

The standsit invariably kept him out of trouble with the city’s beat cops. On the one hand, he was not exactly loitering on the street, because his posterior was semi-in the dog park, via the fence. On the other hand, he was not totally in the dog park, and certainly wasn’t taking up any valuable space where a dog-owner (or disguised cat-owner) might be able to sit and/or frolic.

The next embellishment of the standsit technique was to carefully suss out an equilibrium point where he could balance in a standsit while keeping his typewriter securely and comfortably positioned on his lap. And also type. Also, the sussing-out had to be done while he was in the process of actually setting the typewriter on his lap.

He completed the maneuver with relative ease. As well he should have, being a professional writer.

He typed: “Open. Receive my pain.”

He drummed his fingers over the keys without pressing any of them down. The fifth word needed to be complementary, powerful, unexpected…

He typed: “Interiorate.”

He headed back to the catapults. He noted, not without some satisfaction, that Henderson was running toward the line as fast as he could, but was still a couple blocks away.

Feeling a sense of climactic surety, he slowly drew a dollar from his pocket and handed it to the attendant as magnanimously as he could manage. The submission went up. It was just past 11:00 AM.

Henderson arrived at the catapult immediately to the left, panting. He paid and bent down to put his hands on his knees as his piece went up.

Webley tried not to look at him. Instead, he contented himself with staring up at the Publishing House windows.

It took an extra minute or two, which caused Webley to start to tingle in his toes as the launch-case landed. He opened it to find:

“‘Interiorate’ is not a word. As a newly-minted word, it is wholly unsatisfactory in the context of the rest of the work.

Your work needs more specificity.

Not relevant to any of today’s Scenarios. Good luck placing this piece elsewhere.

Please submit again. All submissions for morning Scenarios are due by noon.
~Editorial Staff.”

Webley didn’t bother to stick around to see what happened to Henderson’s submission. If the son of a bitch succeeded, the whole city would know soon enough.

He was pleased, as he went looking for place and ideas, that there was no hint of anything in the air as the seconds crawled by.

He went back to his apartment. He lived low on a corner that faced away from the sun from most of the day, so the space was not as stifling as it could have been.

Still, he had to push away the clamoring thought that he never, ever, never worked at home, it was too hard to work at home, there were too many distractions, he was shooting himself in the foot coming here.

After a moment of unquiet reflection, he set his typewriter on the toilet, went to the fireplace, started to make himself a chowder for dinner. Cutting corn. Chopping up potatoes and green onions. Cooking up bacon.

He was nearly done putting everything together when his subconscious grabbed him by the inner ear and dragged him back to the bathroom.

It was 11:53 AM.

He squatted and wrote: “Thumbnails dead. Remove. Hug child.”

He beat cheeks back to the catapult line. Only one package catapult was open. Henderson was in a dead run, coming from the other direction. Webley pushed as hard as he could. He lost his grip on the typewriter case, dropped it, stopped to pick it up again. They got there within a split-second of each other and Henderson slapped his dollar into the attendant’s hand.

Henderson smirked at Webley with just his eyes, his mouth claiming neutral status.

The catapult fired. The attendant sent up Webley’s a minute later.

11:58 AM, and change.

Approximately twenty-seven seconds later, a dead silence descended on the city. Webley’s breath caught.

Suddenly, everything was fireworks and trombones and streamers and cheering. A great grey balloon, fueled by a huge torch, carrying a bright yellow gondola, drifted out from behind the Publishing House tower. It made its turn toward Webley and Henderson, revealing a giant banner on its side that said: “CONGRATULATIONS, DEAR AND BELOVED WRITER!!!!!”

The writers looked uncertainly at each other, stuck in the mental middle ground between victory and defeat.

Then Henderson mouthed, “I own your ass!” Even though he didn’t look completely convinced.

The gondola bumped lightly on the street in front of them. The catapult attendants were all standing at attention, and also applauding.

The acquisitions orangutan stepped forward and unfurled a large (likely ceremonial) scroll. It said, “Mr. Webley…!”

Henderson fell down on the sidewalk and vomited.

The acquisitions orangutan said, “…please join us in the gondola!”

It looked at Henderson, “Is this your friend?”

Because he couldn’t help himself, all bloated with the endorphins of conquest, Webley helped Henderson up and said, “Yes, yes! This is my very good friend! Is it okay if he comes too?!”

“Certainly!” the acquisitions orangutan said.

Henderson was too shocked to struggle.

Inside the gondola, the acquisitions orangutan said, “This is Mr. Bock, our driver.”

Bock smiled and saluted without saying anything.

The balloon carried them to the edge of the city, where the ancient scarring of broken and burned buildings was overlaid with the fresh blisters of more recent cataclysm.

Bock said, “This is the Singularity Zone.”

“Every day, singularities open here.”

“Numbers aren’t known in advance.”

Ahead, a glowing sphere of indeterminate size threatened to drill Webley’s eyes back into his brain, and out through the backside of his skull.

Bock said, “A Scenario solved stops time.”

“Stops local time, that is.”

“We can observe and analyze.”

“We watch cause and effect.”

“The Scenarios change each day.”

“We try to find patterns.”

The glowing sphere now below them, Bock directed Webley to look at the floor, which was translucent, and suddenly much easier to see through. Bock handed him a pair of grimy binoculars.

Bock said, “Can’t ever tell what’s next.”

He said, “Today’s Scenarios need five words.”

He said, “Morning, afternoon; five each today.”

He said, “Never know what will work.”

Webley looked through the binoculars. He could see a giant mechanical head, a non-intuitive claptrap of gears and shafts and cranks and levers, sitting at the edge of the sphere below, the sphere closest to the city. In the mouth of the giant mechanical head, a human figure was frozen in the act of placing a piece of paper on the giant mechanical tongue.

Other human figures turned cranks on either side of the giant head, kicking gears into motion, gears that moved the great tongue, speaking the words into the anti-void of the singularity.

In a way, the speaking, and the reaction of the thing inside the singularity were all stretched out—smeared out—in a line, from left to right across his brain’s interpretation of the sphere.

The acquisitions orangutan was quietly narrating: “Machine speaks words, words enter singularity, words make contact with [x], words change [x] into [y]. And something is saved, or something destroyed, or a potentially deadly Scenario is transmuted into pure energy, which flares backwards into the inaccessible point-depth of the singularity, narrowly avoiding the immolation of yet-another-part-of-the-city by the ever-growing glowing sphere…”

Webley strained his eyes to try to make out what this particular [x] was, and how his five words had interacted with it. He gave himself a migraine. His reward was a fleeting, unobstructed glimpse of the Scenario.

A father, caring for his only daughter, wife dead since shortly after childbirth. A virus the father didn’t know, causing sores on the daughter’s body. A man stretched by stress to the point of snapping, not knowing the limits of his daughter’s disease, only aware that now much larger spots, in much larger quantities, are dotting his own hands and elbows and feet. And the girl had seemed better, but now her thumbnails each have strange white circles on them. Is this a resurgence of the virus? A new virus, picked up while her system was already burdened? Some kind of mold?

In the line created at the mechanical head and extending through the Scenario’s timeline, Webley’s words flow into the man’s head. Thumbnails dead. Remove. Hug child.

A deepening calm descends on the father, preempting the heart attack that would have laid him out dead on the floor in the next few breaths. He reaches down, and plucks off first one thumbnail, then the other. Underneath, the new nails are still short, but obviously coming in.

The father kisses the child, hugs her tight.

All of this frozen in a four-dimensional tableau, as it will happen, is happening, has happened.

Bock said, “You know, context is everything.”

Webley turned around. Henderson was gazing at him wide-eyed.

Webley had plenty he wanted to say in response. His mind searched greedily in his half-thinking mental stratum for five-word formulations.

In the immediate distance, other singularities yawned in invitation.


Defenestration-VikingJon Hakes has been writing fiction and other things since before he was potty-trained. His short stories have appeared in Brain Harvest and Analog Science Fiction & Fact. You can visit him at www.jonhakes.com, www.facebook.com/JonHakestheWriter, www.patreon.com/JonHakes, and/or twitter.com/HakesJon, if you don’t have anything better to do online.

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