My dad was a pilot, or rather, is one. A great one. He no longer collects a regular paycheck for the profession, but it’s a creed that never quite leaves the winged disciple of the skies, like the aroma of jet fuel that still clings to his wardrobe. I smell it in the midst of every fatherly embrace, and I’m whisked away to grease-floored hangars, surrounded on all sides by miraculous flying machines. The world seemed limitless back then, unguarded by the folly of Icarus. Time weighs everything down, but my dad is still my hero, and also my reminder that lofty things are not impossible things.
Dormant potential: realized.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Ode to an Old Book (and Honest Love)
worn, like chasms
borne with time
and unique expression,
draw me in deeper,
closer to you, because
I know, I know
those canyons were etched
by light itself
Day of the Algorithm
After years of automatically downloaded behavioral updates, the more apprehensive members of society were all but convinced about the Algorithm's determination to overthrow the human race. The signs were numerous and all too obvious until, seemingly all at once, they weren't.
A cloud of nonchalance descended on the alarmists, the radicals with their boiling blood, the worry seeping from their pores in a simultaneous act of invisible bloodletting. The most vocal detractors of the Algorithm became the most vocal proponents, allegedly overnight and without clear reason, leaving the centrists, the fence-sitters, to defend themselves and, consequently, their entire species.
Jud owned a drone. Not any top-of-the-line model, mind you, with infrared sensors or guided missiles or anything fancy like that (he'd heard about the missiles from an anxious looking fellow at the grocery), just a modestly priced thing about the size of a small pizza box that he put to modest use surveying the land that made up his modestly sized farm in rural Oklahoma. His neighbor (Mike? Mick? He never fully committed the name to memory) had made a comment or two about the mechanism as Jud unloaded it from the trunk of his modest sedan.
"Be the death o' us all soon, jus' you wait friend," he quipped matter-of-factly, spitting the words from the side of his mouth not occupied with a hefty glob of chewing tobacco.
Jud didn't have much of a retort, because who was he to feel confident that they wouldn't be the death of us? Hadn't he just read something or other in the local paper about the dangers of texting, how it was the prevailing cause of vehicular killings? Or was it vehicular dismemberment?
There was also that woman with the slight hunch and the killer blueberry muffin recipe down the road, who lost her husband in a freak microwave accident some months back. But what would "the Algorithm" (as those wackos lovingly titled it) want with a harmless old man?
He'd callously written the incidents off as user error (user stupidity was more like it), but maybe there was some credence to these claims of technological collapse at the hands of an enabling human race, blissfully unaware of our inevitable demise.
And maybe it was just the media, those damned wolves of manipulation, trying to frighten him again.
It was late one Saturday evening. Jud had just sent his two teenage sons, Jud Jr. and Abraham (no Bible connection, it was the name of Jud's late, estranged grandfather), to bed. His wife was visiting her sister for the weekend in the next town over, so it had been a rambunctious evening of boys night festivities. They'd argued through board games, watched all the violent movies their mother was averse to, and Jud had even slipped each of them a small finger of whiskey.
The boys were both out cold now, each in their respective room, side by side like twin mausoleums, at the other end of their modestly sized farm house. Jud was reclining on the front porch, taking in one of the last warm nights of the season. He was smoking a cigar, drunk but not too drunk, when he found his thoughts slip around a far off moment in time, a memory he couldn't quite call into focus.
He thought of his father; not the father that currently lay in a hospice bed two towns over, but a younger version. He heard his dad's voice as a young whisper, guiding him through the tangled brush of a deep forest. Slowly. Cautiously. Warning him about something. Something overhead. The memory quickened, his sinewy vision dashing into a nearby cabin. The door slammed behind him. Then it slammed again. And again, and again.
Jud snapped into focus. The slamming sound wasn't a figment of his evening reverie, but a pervasive booming that seemed to rock his home from its very foundation. He snapped his head back and forth, searching for the source of the punishing racket.
It didn't seem to be coming from behind him, from inside the house, but from the pitch darkness outside. Trusting his abilities as a man to identify and extinguish any potential threat to himself, his family, and his home (in that order), Jud snatched his rifle from the broom closet, and stepped out into the unknown.
His first inclination was to check Mike-or-Mick's house. You know, the neighborly obligation in times of potential crisis (if you could call whatever this uproar was a crisis). He jogged across both of their yards, and a fair distance in between that made up part of their land, knocked on M-or-M's door, and waited.
Jud waited for a long time in front of that door. Too long. He waited for so long that he began to notice a peculiar sense of fear drip into the top of his skull. He wasn't used to feeling afraid, and he certainly didn't enjoy it currently. He wanted it to stop, and now.
Just as Jud was about to pound on the door again, it slid open in an instant. No sound, not even a creak of the hinges, and what stood before Jud chilled him to the bone.
There stood Mike-or-Mick, smiling. The biggest smile he'd ever seen, teeth and all, plastered on his face like a cheap Halloween mask. Jud had never seen the man open more than half his mouth at any one time, and that was only to relieve himself of excess chew saliva.
"Feelin' alright, pal?" It was the only thing Jud could think to say in the moment. He also thought about the rifle in his left hand, but that seemed more than excessive at this juncture. A splash of guilt to flavor his fear. He almost forgot about the relentless booming sound entirely.
"Never better, Jud! Have YOU heard about this THING that's going on TODAY!?" He snapped is arm up, extending it straight out towards Jud's face.
Jud recoiled from the speed of the gesture, nearly stumbling backward off his neighbor's porch. He steadied himself, and looked closer at what was being shown to him. In the man's hand was one of those smartphones that Jud disallowed in his household. On the phone's screen was a blinking image awash in a red glow. Upon even closer inspection, Jud saw four zeroes blinking on the small screen. A timer.
"Did your brownies just finish baking or somethin', bud?" Jud didn't smell brownies, but one can always hold out hope for fresh brownies.
"Ha! Ha! That's a GOOD one, neeeighbor!"
There was something mechanical in M-or-M's gestures, something inhuman and difficult to define, partially because Jud himself couldn't quite put a finger on what made humans more or less human. He certainly never thought of his neighbor as being particularly human at any point, but he knew something was definitely off. His finger moved slowly toward the safety catch on his rifle.
"A DAY! A DAY! A DAY!" his neighbor shouted suddenly, repeating the phrase over and over, "A DAY! A DAY! A DAY! A DAY! A-
BLAM! M-or-M's head exploded, spewing chunks of brain matter, inhuman or human as it was, across his entrance hallway. Jud wasn't sure if he meant to shoot the man, if it was still a man, but something deep down inside him removed that safety, and something even deeper pulled the trigger. It was instinct, that's all. He didn't even get a chance to ask about the ceaseless booming sound.
After poking his head through his deceased neighbor's doorway and briefly peering around, Jud deduced two things: one, the ominous sound was not coming from inside the house, and two, his neighbor was a closet technophile, and a hoarder at that. The decrepit living room floor was covered with handheld video cameras, broken television sets, cell phones of every make and model, speakers of all shapes and sizes, and countless miscellaneous gadgets he didn't have a name for in his lexicon. He'd never seen the man unloading any equipment that wasn't something to be used on the farm, but Jud was only one set of eyes. Maybe there were others that knew him more intimately as this techy freak.
He knew that M-or-M was single. Hell, everybody in town knew! His farm house was notoriously referred to as a "one-man brothel", and Jud's sons never missed an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the action when the opportunity presented itself. He'd caught the little voyeurs more times than he could count, dished out more lashings than he'd like to remember. He hoped his sons wouldn't remember him in the harsh light of fatherly discipline when he'd left this earth, if they remembered him at all. It was only then that he thought about his sons in the present, sleeping at home, or maybe awake and wondering who'd been shot, where there father was at this ungodly hour...
He spared the corpse one final glance, thinking about how no one would remember its animated form in a year's time. Maybe that was insensitive, or just pure selfishness on his part, but that's just how things were out here. The man had been Jud's closest neighbor for close to fifteen years, and Jud didn't even know his real name. He might've even been the man's closest confidante, and that's when it struck him dumbfounded, how often M-or-M talked about "the Algorithm", warning him about it constantly. Something didn't add up.
Jud thought about how long a year was. Would any of us be here in a year's time? It felt like a year had passed since yesterday evening, when he safely sat with his sons playing Monopoly around the dining room table.
He stumbled back toward his own farm. All Jud could think about were his sons. He prayed to every god he could think of, pleading with the beyond for a slim chance that they were still asleep and unknowing. At some point they would find out, they'd know without a shadow of a doubt that their father was a murderer, but he pushed this realization to the furthest corner of his mind, postponing the unthinkable reality as long as he could.
The booming grew louder, more enveloping of his senses. He couldn't think straight, couldn't decide what course of action to take in the face of something so inexplicable. His head felt like a gong viciously slammed again and again and again. Jud cupped his ears with blood-speckled palms and closed his eyes, trying his best to shut out the raucous din, to no avail. Eventually Jud's legs collapsed under him. Why god why god why was it getting louder?
SMASH! An explosion, a bursting apart of some kind. To Jud it sounded like a wrecking ball crashing through the wall of an abandoned church. Strange, he'd sold that wrecking ball years ago, and the wood from that church went up in smoke at his family's land-warming celebration. They'd grilled ribs over it, he remembered. He'd felt bad about it at the time, forcing that meager commune out from their tattered place of worship, but Jud possessed the capital, his flock needed land to build their own dynasty, and progress was progress, as they say.
This wasn't one bursting apart, but many simultaneously. Jud opened his eyes, just in time to dodge a rogue piece of wooden shrapnel flying directly at his head. He remained crouched, holding the rifle over his head, looking in the direction where he thought the closest burst occurred, and that's when Jud noticed that he no longer owned a storage shed.
What remained in its place was a haphazard pile of angular wooden spires, shooting out in every possible direction, surrounded by a carpet of wreckage. The shed had apparently exploded, but there were no flames to be seen. It looked like the most obscure, useless yard-sale in existence. Something had destroyed the shed from the inside, purely by force.
Jud was perplexed to say the least, but thankful for the respite from the booming cacophony. It was quiet, but not the fragile stillness he was used to out here, that silence that's so brittle you could crack it with a tap of your fingernail. No, there was something else out there; a slight hum, like the flutter of a hummingbird's wings, or the soft buzz of a honey bee.
Now it was growing louder. Jud spun his head around like a radar looking for its source, and that's when he saw it. A tiny red light, hovering in the pitch darkness, growing larger by the second. Damn it all to hell, his drone was soaring straight for his own head. His fucking drone was attacking him.
Jud raised his rifle, but soon realized that he'd forgot to reload it since killing whatever it was that had inhabited his neighbor's body. He fell into the prone position as quick as his body would let him, as if a drill sergeant ordered it, just as the drone shot over his head. He fumbled in his pocket for replacement rifle shells, which immediately plunged into the soil below.
"Fuck, fuck, fuck," Jud thought, an endless repetition in his frantic, one-track mind. The drone had veered in a calculated semicircle, and was returning for its prey.
A sitting duck is what he was, but Jud wasn't about to go out like this, like the weakest animal separated from his pack. He pushed himself up as quickly as he could, and sprinted in a zig-zag pattern toward the porch of his farm house. Just as his foot caught the first step, he felt something slice across the length of his back, followed by the warm sensation of flowing blood. Jud collapsed on the porch stairs, as the drone flew off again to calculate its killing blow.
It hastily returned to deal the coup de grâce, the death-stroke. Just as it was about to impale him on the tip of an extended blade, Jud flipped around, and pointed the rifle directly at the artificial beast.
BLAM! Sparks and mechanical viscera flew in every direction. Torched mechanisms and smoking hardware fell from the air.
"A goddamned fireworks display," Jud thought, gasping for a breath that seemed unattainable. The machine had perished, but the blade it wielded was true, reaching its target unencumbered. Jud was bleeding out, slowly but surely.
"Dad? Dad!? Dad!" He could hear his sons calling from inside the house. The screen door slammed open. Jud Jr. and Abraham ran to their dying father.
"What the fuck happened!?" shouted Jud Jr. Ever the analyst, always needing to know the facts. He'd go far in life, no doubt about that, but he'd need to clean up that mouth. He'd have to look out for his mother and brother, and Jud knew that he would without question.
"It's okay boys, we're safe now," Jud gasped, but he didn't know if they actually were safe. Safe from that dreaded toy he'd purchased, anyway.
It was getting difficult for him to remember how he'd gotten to where he was, splayed out for his sons to see, innards and all. He hoped they wouldn't remember him like this, either. He'd give anything for one more game of Monopoly with them, one more violent movie in the safety of their living room, one more boys night where the rules went out the window. He thought of his wife, Debra; the strongest and most beautiful woman he'd ever known. He wanted to kiss her with nobody watching, or everybody watching, it didn't matter to him anymore. He wanted to tell her all the things that he was too proud to share at the time, because pride meant nothing now. He thought of his father, and how he would outlive his only son. How would he remember him?
"Is that- is that s- screaming in the distance?" inquired Abraham. The perceptive one. He'll be a Nobel Prize-winning author, or a cancer-curing scientist, or the president of a first world country. It certainly was screaming. Someone was. Many. Everything out there seemed to be screaming, all at the same time, and it was getting louder. The horizon was aglow with a red hue.
Jud thought about The Algorithm.
If you could, you might
Take all the words you ever spoke,
Line them up,
Shoot the ones that didn’t soar
But soaring and singing are naught
In the presence of wings and voices
That wish to soar and sing
But yet cannot