Archive | January, 2014

Guest Author: Franz Kafka – “On The Subject of Tennis”

HunchbackND1This is the first in a series of guest authors I have lined up for you. He needs no introduction, so I won’t waste my breath. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you – Franz Kafka!

For nearly five years, Roger Federer was unbeatable. Ranked #1 237 consecutive weeks, and an additional 65 weeks besides, from 2004 to 2008, I never saw him lose.anywhere other than France. But then in 2008, in the Australian Open Finals against Nadal, in the second set, he missed a shot I thought of as automatic.,a mundane forehand down the line, and I was shocked into wakefulness. He wasn’t a legendary Swiss automaton after all. What made me think he was?

His infallability, mostly. That. and his reliable inventiveness, his ability to readjust on the micromoment, and compensate – do what needed to be done to prevail. Over the previous five years, he had routinely astounded me, digging returns out of abiding disaster, making points where there were no points to be had, mining gold out of murky asphalt and molding it, sculpting it, polshing it until a wistful rococco cherub sat coquettishly in his hand, with his opponent sweating and gasping on the other side of the net, open-mouthed. Or so I remember it.

I’d seen this sort of thing a thousand times or more on fields and gym floors televised and live. In 1976, I watched at the Spectrum as Julius Erving leapt into the air at the foul line and dunked the ball he held in one hand. I saw him drive the base line, cross under the basket, leap and dunk the ball behind him. I saw him inbound the ball, take a step forward, catch the ball and launch a three all in one movement. It was like watching Picasso be the painting. He did that off and on all season all his career, but he was a team player and occasionally (more than occasionally) his team lost a game. Roger Federer, alone on his court, did this continuously it seemed for three hundred weeks.

Last week, I was astonished to see that his run was over. I’d seen Steve Carlton lose the effectiveness of his slider. Not his slider itself, (though it had lost some speed and it didn’t break as sharply), but when he lost his other pitches, the slider then was ordinary in their company, He was thicker around the middle, and he sweated heavier. He bounced off half a dozen teams, which was always the most tragic thing to see, a former great, stubbing out his dignity in the samd urn by the door. I’d seen that. This wasn’t that, thank god. He can still compete. He’s still ranked #6, and it’s appropriate, and not demeaning. Just… he couldn’t beat the best of all possible Nadals.

The Nadal who lost the next day to Wawrinka, that’s another story. Frankly, I’m glad we didn’t have to watch that match, Federer vs that Nadal. It wouldn’t have solved anything. It would have stood in the road. Federer winning that match would have been almost piteous, I’m not proud to write that; it shows my meanness. I don’t want to be mean. I don’t want to be fat, either..All the attention would have been on Other Things – as if Nadal suddnly grew a hump, or something.

That, I could go for. If Nadal had a hump; if he was a hunchback. Franz Kafka presents…

One morning, Rafael Nadal awoke to find …

“Aa! Good morning, Rafa! Have a good night’s sleep?”

“What? Oh, yes, very refreshing.”

“I had a hunch you’d say that. When did you get back?”

“Whaat?”

“I say, when did you get in last night? I didn’t hear the door.”

“Well, I stopped at the pub for a few minutes.”

“A few what?”

“Minutes. You know, short increments of time. O, what is it, Tony?”

“Well, you see, there’s a bit of a hump on your back just now…”

“No there isn’t.”

“I’d say there is.”

“You’re such a pessimist, always seeing humps on people’s backs.”

“I have never seen a hump on anyone’s back until today. This morning, I see one alright.”

“Well, don’t let on.”

“How do you suggest I explain its rather pronouned presence?”

“Tell them it’s my rackets.”

“They’ve seen you with your rackets.”

“Tell them they’re my rackets and I’ve become very close to them. I’ve become One with my rackets.”

“You’re crazy, Rafa.”

“Yes. Tell them I’m crazy, and as a result, they’re seeing things.”

“And how does that work?”

“Tell them it’s a psychosis. There’s a name for it. Tell them to look it up.”

Actually, I’d rather expect hockey players to develop humps. Shows what I know.

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The Auction – In Space, a tale of the Future

 kFreasSpStaAs soon as he left the Sales dock, Weaver felt the yacht begin to fail. What he felt was very subtle, nothing that anyone who had never felt it before would ever notice: a slight hesitation in the spine of the ship that echoed along her keel and ribs and shifted her seat. It made an actual tone, Weaver realized, a dull low-pitched note faint to the point of disappearing, completely dissonant with the background motor tones, the air pumps and whatever. It rang and rang and never faded completely away. That was all the hope Weaver had left. If the sound ever vanished, or attuned to the background, he figured, that was when he would die.

The yacht, currently named “Sonic Boom”, had just been sold at the Redenfeld Rocket Auctions, a space station orbiting Vehicle World in the Commercial System. Further, the buyer had exercised his option to have the craft Post-Sale Inspected and certified FlightReady. This of course cost extra, but with a yacht like “Sonic Boom”, it was almost a necessity.

Post-Sale Inspection came with a seven or fourteen day guarantee, which meant that, if the ship broke down within the allotted time, the buyer could return the vehicle (at his own expense) to the Auction and receive a complete refund. The fourteen-day guarantee cost exactly twice the seven-day price.

The Auction was open only to bonded dealers. Inspection covered structural, outer-hull and propulsion system integrity, and certified that all parts were manufacturer’s original or replacement parts; and that, if structural repairs or alterations had been made, they were all declared on the auction registration. Otherwise, the buyer might be entitled to a price reduction. Other aspects of the ship, such as inner hull integrity or engine subsystems or oxygen and water reclamation systems, could also be verified, at additional cost. All in all, it was the most reliable place to purchase used personal vehicles in the Federation. In a business known for its underhandedness, it was as above-board as you could get.

Still, the inspections were rapid and superficial. Redenfeld put six thousand personal ships and runabouts on the auction-block every Wednesday. Over half were sold, out of which a thousand were inspected and parked in the Sold Yard ready for pickup by noon the next day, so each inspection could not take more than eight minutes and most took three. At that, fewer than one in ten thousand were returned to the Auction. Dealers were satisfied, their clients were satisfied, and business grew every year.

Weaver was a Driver. His job was to get into a ship in berth A and deliver it to berth B. There was no mystique and above all no drama attendant to the job. He was expected to be familiar enough with the various cockpit configurations and thruster arrays to be able to get in any model of the last twenty years and move it from one bay to another efficiently. What made him a Driver rather than a Pilot was his exclusive use of positioning thrusters. Drivers never used the main propulsion engines.

The space station that was the Auction was a traditional torus with an elongated axis. A ring three hundred meters in diameter held administrative offices, a cafeteria, rest rooms, even twelve “motel rooms” that were used mostly by transporters and stranded clients, all in the artificial gravity of the spinning tube. The Main Auction was conducted in twenty bays in two arms spiraling out from, and then back to, the bottom of the hub, making the Station look not unlike an infant’s toy top. Ships for sale were berthed just above the auction bays at the bottom of the hub, and sold ships were parked in tiers of four straight arms at the top. Various shops for mechanical and body work, detailing, electronic and communications work were found in between.

In order to get to the Inspection Bays near the Sold Yard at one end of the axis from the Sales Yard at the other end, Weaver had to go about half a kilometer into space to get around the torus.

Drivers wore one-piece Tyvek suits that included gloves, boots, a transparent face panel and a rebreather that split CO2 into molecules of carbon and oxygen. The suits were guaranteed to withstand absolute vacuum for ten minutes. Auction policy stated clearly that no Driver was compelled to move an unsafe vehicle. They were to test the thrusters and look at the barometer before undocking from the bay. If a driver concluded that a vehicle posed any real degree of danger were he to attempt to move it, he was to report it to his Unit Leader and have it towed.

When Weaver heard The Sound, his first impulse was to pull the eject lever and report the thing. This was life or death, he knew. Moreover, not all personal ships had eBars, but this one did. Maybe the fact that he’d noticed it when he first sat down, large and red under the left side of the console, was An Omen or something. He repressed the impulse. Following his impulses, as a rule, made much more trouble than was there already, and that he didn’t need.

“In the unlikely event of cataclysmic decompression or total vehicle failure, drivers are urged to keep their personal propulsion units on their belts at all times. These will enable you to return to the Auction-station well within the margins of suit safety.” Weaver remembered the orientation video verbatim on this subject. He thought the narrative elegant and concise, and repeated it in his head almost every time he turned a ship outward to avoid the Ring. This morning, it seemed to take on a more sepulchral tone. Weaver chuckled darkly and shrugged it off, then studied The Sound closely for a moment. It had not changed.

“Any real degree of danger.” Read, “No False Alarms.”

Weaver had once discussed “sympathetic vibration” with a mechanic. The guy had laughed at him. Weaver knew this mechanic as the most intelligent, awake, coherent employee at Redenfeld, which is why he had brought up the subject at all. He saw no point mentioning it again.

Besides, he would use only the thrusters. They made no coherent noise, set up no vibrations. No abnormal stress could possibly build up in the 110-second journey between the Sales bays and the Inspection dock. Right?

Gently, he eased the little ship down out of its berth. He slowed its descent, turned the bow and headed for the inspection bays.

Just as he began his turn, the ship gave a loud SNAP! Weaver’s heart, when he caught up with it, was halfway up his Eustachian tubes – both of them. But the ship proceeded to turn in an uninterrupted and graceful arc.

“Fukkin Jeesus,” Weaver thought. “I’m gettin jumpy as a cat.”

Plenty of the drivers at Redenfeld had military experience. Some had served during the Leviathan War or the ill-fated Martian Revolt. Others had fought off the Lost Tribes when they attacked mining bases in the Asteroids and on the Moon. Weaver was trained as a navigator, but had left the combat forces when an opening showed up in Military Police. He had faced death before. But this was retirement. Dying in a “used car lot” would be just a pathetic bad joke.

His metatext board lit up. Aqua letters said, “Inspection Bay 3,4,5”, useless information in that only those three bays existed and Weaver could see them from where he was. They were all occupied, as usual. He would have to take a place in line at the parking buoy. While there were programmed routines he could select for entering each inspection bay, there weren’t any for the wait line. Well, probably there were, but they would have come out after Redenfeld had bought the ones they had and Purchasing wouldn’t allow newer ones. He pointed the ship away from the buoy and prepared to swing around.

There was an ominous ping! behind him on the right. Almost simultaneously, a second ping came behind him on his left, lower in pitch and much closer. Weaver stopped doing anything and scanned the readings. All the numbers were nominal and stable. He wasn’t near any structures or ships. He hadn’t even begun his turn, so he was still pointed into The Beyond and there were no stresses on his ship. According to the readings, he was just gliding along at two to four meters a second, with nothing happening.

Most disturbingly, according to the readings, nothing had happened for at least ten minutes.

If he didn’t turn soon, he would have to do some slick maneuvering to get into line. He eased the ship into the most gradual turn that would bring him home, all the while keeping his eyes glued to the displays. Nothing shimmered, flickered or twitched. The ship responded, as expected, like a graceful cow. and settled into its approach.

As he got to his parking spot, Weaver eased the reverse thrusters in and the ship glided to a  stop just as he wished, in such position and at such an attitude that, even if the thrusters spontaneously came on full (impossible, but it had happened during Weaver’s time there) or even the main engines ignited (completely impossible) the ship could be brought back under control without further damage (in theory).

There were four ships ahead of his. Weaver found some jazz on the music service and settled back.

“Weaver, Leo,” said the radio.

“Yeah, Boss. What’s up?” Leo was Weaver’s Group Leader.

“Everything alright?”

“Yeah, of course. Why’d you ask?”

“Do you remember saying, ‘Shit wawazzat’, or some such thing a few minutes ago?”

“I may have,” said Weaver. “There were sudden weird noises in here. The gauges don’t show anything, so I’m keeping my eye on them.”

“You sure you’re OK? I have a perfect safety record so far. I would look dimly upon any devaluing of that.”

“As who wouldn’t? Don’t worry about me,” said Weaver.

“O, but I do, Weaver. I do.”

“We all admire your concern for us,” said Weaver, keeping his voice dead even. “Especially the timeliness of your inquiries.”

“Go to hell, Weaver.”

“You have a nice day, too, Boss.”

Drivers were organized into work crews of more or less ten. Originally, crews were assembled randomly, and then drivers of like personalities drifted together. Each crew developed its own group dynamic. That of Leo’s crew, including Weaver, operated on the principle that affection could only bind in the presence of vituperation. They were constantly cursing and reviling each other using terms that would have caused sailors to pale and turn away.

There was movement in the line. First one then the next vessel in front of Weaver entered inspection bays. Weaver edged his maneuvering thrusters forward.

For an instant, nothing happened. Then the ship heaved forward. All the forward thrusters – eight of them, four near the cockpit and four near the tail – roared like mountain-lion cubs. This of course was impossible. Weaver didn’t have time to think. The rear nozzles of the craft in front of him were very close now. He pulled on the wheel.

“Up” is almost always the safest direction to go.  Even if you’re upside down, because “down” is generally the second-safest direction.

In Weaver’s case, “up” was definitely a good choice. “Leveling off” was a superb Next Step, and that Weaver did as soon as he thought of it. He didn’t know why, exactly. It just seemed likely to be the Best Next Thing To Do, so he did it before he tried in any other way to gain control of the ship.

Later, going over it all, he realized that he definitely heard yet another tone below the shrill roar of the thrusters, a whining, whistling sound that rose in pitch continually for several seconds before it burst into a massive roar, an explosion that never died out, and Weaver found himself crushed back into his seat.

By the time he could think, he knew several things about what had happened. The rising, whining whistle was the main engine coming up; the never-ending explosion was it coming on; and leveling off kept the ship in the same plane as Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which made it a lot simpler to calculate a path home. Also, this was no mechanical failure. The computer had been hacked. The radio was jammed, filled with static. The emergency AutoShutDown was pulled out of its rack. This ship had been stolen, and him with it.

# 2. #

Since Vehicle World was behind him, Weaver could not see it. In front of the ship, he could only see stars.

“Are we going out there?” he wondered. He could not shut down the engines without turning off his oxygen supply. According to the readout, he had fuel enough to burn for fortysix minutes. He had no idea how far or how fast he would be going in fortysix minutes. When the fuel was exhausted, though, he would be unable to slow, much less stop, the ship.

“If I let it go for twentythree minutes and then flip it 180,” he said. He found some paper, took out a pen and began doing arithmetic.

“Say I take two minutes to come about,” he said.

“Hmm,” he said.

He might have said more, but at that instant the engine shut off.

Weaver floated out of his chair. He had been pushed back into the upholstery by the acceleration. When it ended, the foam cushioning expanded and he was ejected, softly, toward the console. He grabbed hastily for the armrests behind him. His left hand closed on Naugahyde, and he pulled himself slowly back into the seat.

“Geez, real Naugahyde,” he said, suddenly recognizing the legendary material. “I haven’t seen this stuff since I was a kid.” The antique fabric was a collector’s item, a relic from a time when petroleum was plentiful and was used in thousands of products.

He tried the radio again. Still, nothing but static, ear-splittingly loud. Weaver turned the volume down until the white noise was just a normal background. He switched the channel selector to scan all channels. Maybe they hadn’t thought to jam everything.

They hadn’t. In fact, most channels were clear – and also empty of traffic. Weaver set up a hail on all channels and a scan to accompany it. He didn’t have to wait long.

“Ahoy, ‘Sonic Boom’, this is Operations.”

“Hello, Operations. I seem to be adrift here.”

“Ah, yes, and a fair distance off,” said Operations. “Think you can make it back yourself?” Nice of them, thought Weaver, such confidence they had in their drivers.

“Probably,” Weaver said. “If I need help, I’ll be sure to call.”

“You do that. Good luck.”

“Is there any activity in your vicinity?” Operations asked suddenly.

Weaver looked at his screens. “No, nothing. The only thing moving out here is me.”

“Curious,” said Operations. “No indication why the engine shut off?”

“None at all,” said Weaver.

That appeared to be all Operations had to say.

Weaver set about preparing to return to the Auction. The main engine had no throttle. It was either on or off. According to the onboard status recorder, it had run for 43.9 seconds. Weaver carefully determined his location and attitude. Using the thrusters, Weaver gently spun the ship 180 degrees. The ship made no abnormal sounds and exhibited no stress. He rechecked the attitude and verified he was pointed precisely back where he had come from.

He started the engine and then shut it down 65.7 seconds later. He rechecked position and attitude. He was returning at half the speed at which he exited, exactly on course.

He got back to the buoy 45 minutes after he had left. All the inspection bays were full, again, but there was no one in line. Weaver waited at the buoy. Presently, a green light shone at the mouth of the second bay. Entering the “Bay2” algorithm,Weaver took ‘Sonic Boom’ into the bay.

# 3. #

Ross Tamblyn, Director of Operations, entered the cafeteria looking for someone named Ned Reyer. He saw him as soon as he passed the door, and, though they’d never met, went directly to him.

“I need to talk to you about ‘Sonic Boom’,” Tamblyn said. “Could you come outside? It’s a little quieter there.”

In the hall, Tamblyn continued towards his office. The other man followed. Tamblyn shut his door and turned the glass walls frosted.

” ‘Sonic Boom’ was stolen, Ned,” said Tamblyn.

“Yeah?” said Reyer. “You know where it is now?”

“It’s in Post-Sale Inspection. We found it right away, Looks like it’s undamaged.”

“Oh. OK, that’s good.” Reyer seemed to hesitate a moment. Tamblyn looked at him.

“Yes?” Tamblyn said.

“I guess you didn’t catch him,” he said.

“Nope. Dunno who he is yet,” said Tamblyn. ” The theft was automated. I’m guessing the autopilot went off at the wrong time. Our driver was even aboard. Ever hear of anything that stupid?”

“Heh. Imagine that. Hard to figure.”

“You got any guesses?”

“Me? How – beats me, man.” Reyer stood across the desk from Tamblyn with his hands in his pockets.

“You’re supposed to transport that ship, right? For Al Morgan?” Morgan was the registered used vehicle dealer who had won the auction.

“Yeah, that’s right.”

“Take it to his place, over at Station, uh…”

“At Station Disco54, right.”

“Can I ask you something? Cause, Al never buys more than two ships at a time. How do you pay foryour tractor beam?”

Reyer had a half-ass smile on his face, like he was about to hang a dirty punch line on a nursery rhyme. “Well, there’s, um, there’s, aah …”

“Eh?” said Tamblyn.

“I was sayin, there’s different size tractor beams. I’m a pro, and I’ve got three of em…”

“Hunh. And the smaller ones, they cost less? That it? They amortize quicker, you can write off each beam against usage per hour? That’s the sage businessman’s way, eh?”

“Yeah. I mean, it pays for itself.”

“Ned you ever have a dealer front for you? You ever buy a ship here? Cause some of our dealers and some of our transporters do that shit. We don’t like it. You ever do that?”

“Nossir. Not here.”

“Not here? You do it in the other auctions?”

“No, I – you know what? I did do that once. Once. Here. A long time ago. Long long ago.”

“Yeah? What happened? How’d it work out?”

:”It was OK – no, I got to tell you the truth. I got burned.”

“You did?”

“Damn straight. My brother-in-law, he wanted this Strato 2525, right? A classic. He knew it was on the block this one time and he says to me, ‘I got to have it.’ So OK. I say, I’ll get it, I’ll do it for him, just this once, and son of a bitch when I go back to him, he says, ‘How much?! Oh, no, you must be nuts!’”

“So, you were stuck with it, hunh?”

“I was stuck with it yessir.”

“How’d Al take it?”

“O, it wasn’t Al! No, no, it was, uh, you know that guy from Atlanta, he comes up here every – he used to come up here every week but now he’s here maybe twice a year, what’s his name, uh”

“Stanley Medved, maybe?”

“Hummm…”

“Well, anyway, you don’t do that now, right?”

“Nope! Nossir, not now – not ever again!”

“Okay, then. ‘Sonic Boom’ll’ be ready as usual, on schedule.”

Later, Ross Tamblyn happened across Leo in a men’s room.

“You have any guesses pertaining to that frisky yacht?” Leo said.

“O yeah. It was the transporter, all right. He’s got a buddy, name of Medved, an ex-programmer who loves to hack and who happens to be here today. Trouble is, he’s sloppy and a moron. He gets himself all worked up, loses his cool, and does something stupid every time. He got into the ship’s system and automated a takeoff. And I’m pretty sure he set the timer for 3pm when he meant to set it for 3am. Just my guess, mind you, but an educated one.”

“You get him?”

“Security has Medved. They’re rummaging through his portables as we speak. I’ve just had a talk with the transporter. I don’t think he’ll be a problem anymore.”

# 4. #

Inspected vehicles are to be picked up from Sold Yard by noon the day following the Auction. Ned Reyer cleared his paperwork about 10:30am. When he asked about Stanley Medved, he was told he had checked out of his room and wasn’t on the Auction anymore.

The yacht was parked as usual. As Reyer approached, two mechanics were looking it over. Ned had seen them around. He liked them. They chatted about how great “these ol’ Rugbys” were.

“You’re transporting by tractor beam, right?” one of them asked Ned.

“Yep,” he said. “Why?”

“O, nothin, you’ll be OK,” said the mechanic. “In inspection, we came across a broken torsion bar and another one that was on its last legs. Funny thing. They were the only worn parts. Everything else looked brand new and shiny. If they’re not replaced, this thing could fall apart any time. Just some engine torque plus a lee-tle interstellar gas pocket or dust bunny.” He closed a fist, then expanded his fingers. “Poof.”

There was a silence.

“Um, did you replace the struts?”

“Torsion bars. No, not us. That’s for the owner. That’s why I asked. Didn’t want you to fly it unless the owner did something about them. We just inspect, and write it down. No adjustment in the price for that kind of shit. Make sure and show the inspection report to the owner, though. Take care, OK?”

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