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Wow! Big girl now, huh? Three years old. I bet you're getting to be a real pretty lady now. Almost as pretty as your mom. I'll have to ask Mommie to send me some holos so I can see what you like now. The last time I saw you, you didn't have any hair. I hope you have hair now. Aargh. That makes me sound like a moron. Joyce thinks I'm enough of a moron as it is. Quit transcribing this, you damn machine.
"End dictation," Shelley Fleetwood snapped, staring at the pitiless blinking cursor. He sighed and swiped his finger across the holographic display, erasing the words. "Begin dictation."
I'm sorry I didn't send you a card for your last birthday. I actually was going to send you one, but I forgot. Actually I was going to program the computer to do it automatically on every birthday, but I forgot to do that, too. Shit, I can't tell her that. Shit, I just said shit in a letter to a three-year-old.
Fleetwood took a drink from the bottle of Old Gaian No. 40 by the deskpad and stared at the blank display, thinking. Then he typed a well-memorized code.
The screen changed to show a field of roses. A cartoon animal of some sort -- it looked like a cross between a weasel and a hedgehog -- marched into the display on its rear legs, carrying a flamethrower, and systematically decimated everything in sight. Then it turned towards Fleetwood and said, "Go screw yourself, Fleetwood. I'm busy."
"Turn off the damn net-ID, Frank," Fleetwood muttered. He typed another code. The screen went blank. After a moment, a voice muttered, through a yawn, "Who the hell is it?"
"Hey, Frank. Did I wake you up?"
After a moment's pause, the voice snarled, "Yes, you woke me up, you little jerk. How'd you get my priority code?"
"You gave it to me."
"I did not."
"Well, somebody else gave it to me. Doesn't matter."
"Yes, it does! The only people who have this code are Fendor and my bodyg--" He paused. "SEYMOUR!" he yelled at the top of his lungs.
"Settle down, Frank. Your boys owed me a favor for helping them out when you fired them."
Seymour? I'm going to strangle him. Then strangle you."
"Aren't you going to ask me what I want?"
Frank heaved a deep sigh and turned on the visual. Fleetwood stifled his immediate response, which was hysterical laughter; it wouldn't be a good idea to antagonize Frank when he was about to ask him for a favor.
"What's the matter with you?" Frank growled. "You'd think you'd never seen a grown man wearing an oatmeal mask and curlers before. Just tell me what in Kismet I can do to make you leave me alone so I can kill Seymour and then go back to sleep."
"I've got a question."
Frank crossed his arms over his red and black lace teddy. "A question? That's it?" His eyes narrowed. "What am I saying, That's it
indeed. This is you
we're talking about. Ask your question but I am in no way obligated to answer truthfully, or for that matter, to answer at all."
"It's a serious question, Frank. You have a daughter, right?"
Frank's eyes narrowed further. "Come near my daughter and I'll shoot you."
Fleetwood rolled his own eyes, and drank from the bottle again. "Honestly, Frank. Don't trust me any farther than you can throw me, do you? Listen, since you have a daughter, you must know something about little girls, you know, what they like to eat and wear and play and all that crap."
"What the hell are you doing now, seducing schoolchildren?"
Frank. It's private."
Frank's arms had dropped slowly from their crossed position, but he still looked wary. "I didn't know anything was private with you. Including your ... privates. Are you sure your tastes haven't moved on to little girls?"
"Would it matter to you?"
"Yeah," Frank said slowly. "I think it would. Weird. Maybe this is one of those side effects of having kids that they never warn you about."
"Maybe. So do you know, Frank?"
"Do I know what?"
"What I asked you, moro-- I mean, Frank. What do little girls like?"
"I don't think I can, in all conscience, tell you until you tell me why you need to know," Frank said, looking increasingly startled with every word that came out of his mouth.
Fleetwood stared at the pale liquid inside the liquor bottle rather than at Frank. "I have a daughter too, remember? I'm just trying to figure out something to give her."
He glanced up to see Frank. The mobster now had his hands planted on the bed on either side of his hips, and he was looking at Fleetwood with his head cocked on one side. "Give her?"
"Whaddya mean, why? I don't know ..." Fleetwood sloshed the contents of the bottle, watched it glimmer in the light from the ceiling strips. "Because I've never given her a damn thing in her life? No wonder Joyce doesn't let me near her."
"How much have you had to drink, Fleetwood?"
"I mean ..." Fleetwood rambled on, oblivious. "She's three years old, dammit. I don't have a single picture of her. I haven't even seen her since she was a baby. No, that's not exactly true ... I never tried
to see her. I suppose I'd call Joyce every once in a while, get a short update, whatever crumbs the bitch'd throw me ... yeah, Chris said her first word today, oh by the way she's walking now ... she'll be dating soon and I've never even met her!"
Frank rubbed his ear. "Well, that was an uncharacteristically maudlin outburst."
"What would you do?" Fleetwood appealed.
"Do?" Frank shrugged. "About what? Kids are overrated, Fleetwood. You may not talk to yours, but mine hardly talks to me. Today's Intergalactic Father's Day, right? You think she called or came to see me?" He shrugged again.
"Well, when was the last time you went to see her?"
Frank fidgeted and adjusted his curlers, avoiding Fleetwood's eyes. "What are you talking about? Father's Day is supposed to be a day when your kids worship you,
moron. You're the only person in the universe who thinks you're supposed to give the kids
a gift on Father's Day."
"Jeez, Frank, don't you think you should at least give her a call?"
"Why don't you call yours?" Frank snapped. "Why are you annoying me instead?"
"I can't call her, Frank. She's three years old. She wouldn't answer the phone and I doubt if Joyce would let her near it once she finds out who's calling."
"Oho. You haven't called her because you're afraid of your ex."
Fleetwood slammed the bottle down on his desk, sloshing a few drops on the desktop sensor pad, which had stains upon stains from similar accidents in the past. "Damn it, Frank. I am not afraid of Joyce. Meg ... yeah, even though she's dead, I'm still
sort of afraid of Meg. Joyce, no."
"The hell you're not. People you've slept with intimidate you."
Fleetwood grinned. "You
don't intimidate me."
"That does it." Frank hit the disconnect button.
Fleetwood waited a moment and then called him back.
"Go away!" Frank yelled at him without turning on the visuals.
"You didn't answer my question. I'll go away if you answer my question."
"Jeez ... What was your question again, you frikking idiot?"
"What sort of present can I give a three-year-old girl?"
"The gift of your absence, Fleetwood. And that you've already given her. Now leave me alone and go to sleep." Frank disconnected again.
"Honestly." Fleetwood stared at the dead screen. He moved a hand towards the keyboard, then sighed and let it fall.
"What is wrong
with that fool?" Frank growled, staring at the comm.
He flopped back down on the bed and started to run his hand through his hair, but the curlers balked him.
"I am not your friend, Fleetwood," he said out loud. "You don't call me when you're having personal problems. You just ... don't, you little moron."
He stared at the ceiling in the dim light of the bedside lamp, and then hollered at the top of his lungs: "SEYMOUR!"
After a pause, Guido's red crew cut reluctantly showed itself around the edge of the door. "Uh, he's off tonight, boss."
"Lucky him," Frank muttered under his breath.
"Can I, uh ..." Guido tugged at his collar and looked as if he'd rather be on the Secuban Front. "... Uh, help in any way, boss?"
"No," Frank snapped. "Go play cribbage or jerk off or whatever you boys do when you're on duty."
"Uh, right away, boss. Thanks, boss." The door slammed shut.
"I am surrounded by idiots," Frank said to the ceiling.
After a moment he rolled over and pillowed his head on his arm.
Kids are overrated, Fleetwood. You may not talk to yours, but mine hardly talks to me.
Well, when was the last time you went to see her?
"Gaaaah," Frank sighed. He sat up and stared at the comm.
Frank, don't you think you should at least give her a call?
"What are you now, Fleetwood, my conscience?" Frank demanded of the comm.
He looked at the chrono readout on the comm. It was late. Rose would probably be asleep.
Frank got up and wandered into the bathroom, where he wiped off his face with a hand towel and began unraveling the curlers from his thick, dark hair. He stared at himself in the mirror: a dark-eyed young man with high, sharp cheekbones, his narrow face framed by a cascade of half-limp curls.
What does Rosie see when she looks at me? Some kind of dangerous freak?
Guess I am who I am.
He sighed and shrugged into a silky pink robe, brushing his hair out of his eyes, and went back to the bed, where he sat cross-legged and hit one of the presets on the comm.
The "dialing" light flashed on and off, on and off. Frank covered a yawn with one hand. Finally the comm told him that the dialed party was not responding and did he want to leave a message?
"Sure," Frank said, lying down on his stomach and folding his hands under his chin. "Transcribe.
"Hi, Rosie. It's your dad. Just thought I'd give a call and say hi. I guess it's a little late for you. Anyway, I just called to say ..."
"... just called to say hi, kid. Gimme a call sometime, huh? We'll have a day out on the town."
He disconnected before he could say anything else embarrassing, slipped out of the robe and flung it onto the floor.
"You happy, Fleetwood?" he snapped at the comm, and, yanking the blankets over himself, slammed his head down on the pillow in determination to sleep regardless of what other distractions the night might have in store for him.
The weird thing, Fleetwood realized, was that ... Frank was right, though possibly not for the reasons that Frank usually thought he was right.
Only an idiot would think that one cheap gift on Intergalactic Father's Day could make up for never calling or stopping for by the rest of the year.
Better to just leave it alone.
He sighed and shut down the comm. Chris would get by. She was a Fleetwood, after all.
Or a Quinlan, or a Carroll, or whatever.
He shuffled a stack of porn out of one of the drawers. At least the evening didn't have to be a total waste.
There was a soft tap at the door. Fleetwood's head snapped up. It probably
wasn't somebody trying to kill him; would-be assassins rarely knocked, but there was always a first time. He lightly teased his gun halfway out of its holster.
"C'mon in. Unlocked," he called.
The door slid open, and the boy in the doorway hesitated, caught between cockiness and indecision.
"Morphine?" Fleetwood said in surprise.
Morphine appeared to have some new piercings, but Fleetwood wasn't quite sure; so much of the kid's skin had been tattooed, drilled, fringed, riveted, spiked, sculpted or otherwise modified that it was difficult to even identify his original skin color. The small horn above his left eyebrow was definitely new, however, as was the slimy, sausage-shaped blob with pink and yellow racing stripes dangling from his cheek.
"I know I'll regret asking, but what exactly is that?" Fleetwood inquired, nodding towards Morphine's head.
"That thing on your face."
"Oh, this." Morphine nudged the slimy thing, which curled up slightly at his touch. "Designer remora."
"Well, I have to admit it," Fleetwood said. "You've found an odder fad than fashion amputations. Speaking of which, I see you have your finger back."
Morphine nodded. "It was too hard to pick pockets with only nine."
Fleetwood squinted at his son's hand. Something appeared to be slightly off about it; owing to the amount of alcohol he'd had, it took him a moment to figure out what was wrong. "It's on backwards, though, isn't it?"
"The guy who grew me a new one was messed up on something strong when he put it on me. I'll get it done right as soon as I steal enough money to afford it."
"Well, that's good to hear." Fleetwood waved a hand around the office. "As you can see, there's nothing worth stealing here, aside from the deskcomm, and you took the printer the last time you were here."
"I needed it."
"Get a good street price for it?"
"Not too bad,," Morphine said. "Enough to buy the remora."
"Oh. Well, glad I could help out, I suppose. Uh, do you want something? Besides money?"
Morphine shrugged. "No. Not really. Not much." He started to turn to go, then hesitated. "Uh, I guess there was one thing. Not very important."
"What might that be?" Fleetwood inquired warily.
Morphine fidgeted, poised in the doorway as if to flee. "Wanted to give you something," he said.
Fleetwood's wariness increased. Nothing good ever came of that sort of announcement from Morphine. "I suppose a new printer would be too much to hope for?"
"Uh, no. Sorry. I didn't think of it. I know a few places I could steal one from. I can get you a much nicer one than the one you had."
"If you happen to think of it. So what do you have for me? Is it dangerous or contagious?"
Morphine grinned slightly. "No, not really. Just something I realized this afternoon that I've never done before, so I figured, why not go ahead and do it for a change. Life's short and all."
He tossed a small object onto Fleetwood's desk, where it rolled into the clutter.
"Happy Father's Day," Morphine said, and fled.
"Hey! This isn't going to explode, is it?" Fleetwood yelled after him, prepared to hit the floor if necessary. A moment passed without loud noises, gas clouds or flying shrapnel, so he poked at the object. It was an ordinary-looking data stik.
"Huh." Fleetwood clicked it into his wrist reader and laid his palm on the sensor pad on the desk.
The holoscreen lit up a rich shade of blue-green, the color of filtered sunlight in the biodomes. It framed Morphine's face, turned downward as he fidgeted with something out of view of the camera. "How do you turn this th oh," he muttered, and looked up into the eye of the camera and, indirectly, Fleetwood. A shy grin twisted his mouth, clinking some of his lip rings. "Uh, hi. I guess this thing is recording. I've never used one of these booths before. I know the background's kind of cheesy, but most of them were worse. All the scenery they had was stuff like blue skies and clouds and flowers, dumb stuff like that. I couldn't find one of the moon's surface anywhere and I know that's the sort of scenery you like. So I picked out this funky color. It looks nothing like Kismet but what the hell."
He fidgeted and stared off to one side of the camera. "I've never made a card before, so I'm not quite sure what to say. Damn, I knew I shoulda just downloaded a card, but I just couldn't take the idea of scanning in my face and having it lip-sync some sort of syrupy poem. Jeez, me reciting a poem. How dumb is that?"
His eyes roved upward, and then came to settle on Fleetwood's. "Damn, it says I only have twenty seconds left, and I don't have any more cred to add more minutes. Uh ... shit. Happy Father's Day, I guess. That's the whole point of a Father's Day card, right? I ... um. You're a jerk sometimes and I wish you'd been around more when I was a kid, like, ever
been around actually, but I guess I haven't been much of a son either. I guess what I'm trying to say is that you're not a bad dad and this card is supposed to be saying that, only doing a really bad job because I "
He was cut off in mid-sentence. The screen lingered on the blue-green background for a moment, then went dark.
Fleetwood's fingers slipped down slowly from the sensor pad. "Huh," he said at last.
He snapped the data stik out of the wrist reader with fingers that trembled slightly, snapped it back into its case and dropped it into his pocket. Then he sat and stared at the deskcomm, unmoving, for several minutes. Finally he snapped into motion again, and punched in a number.
"Fleetwood," growled Frank's voice. "This had better not be you again."
"I'm changing this code tonight, you hear me? Tonight!"
"You didn't actually kill Seymour, did you, Frank?"
"No," Frank grumbled. "He's off tonight. It's annoying to find a place to dump a body in the middle of the night anyway."
"Good. Did you call Rose?"
There was a long silence from the other end. Finally Frank said, "Yes." After a moment he added, "Did you call Chris?"
"No. I couldn't think of anything to say."
"I couldn't think of anything to say to Rosie either, you moron, but I did it anyway. If I have to suffer, then so do you. Besides," he added with a rare (for Frank) flash of insight, "I don't think it matters what you say."
"I know," Fleetwood said softly, fingering the data stik in his pocket. "I think somebody just showed me."
"Oh God," Frank said in weary disgust. "And you're about to tell me the whole soppy story, aren't you?"
"Morphine gave me a Father's Day card. It's the first time he's ever done that."
"Good for you. I'm happy for you. No, actually I'm not. You're annoying the hell out of me. Go to bed, Fleetwood."
"I can't until I figure out what to say to Chris."
"Fine, so go figure it out and leave me alone!"
"Frank," Fleetwood said. "Do you ever think back to when you were a kid?"
"Oh ... my ... God." Frank turned on the visuals on his comm and squinted at Fleetwood balefully through a mass of dark hair. "Whatever did I do to deserve this trip down Memory Lane, Fleetwood? I don't care if you do your soul-searching late at night, but why the hell do I have to be involved?"
"It's nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of. You're a good listener."
"I -- huh? I'm a what?" Frank had been called a lot of things, but this was a new one for him.
"I mean ... it's not like you actually listen; you're too self-centered. That's the charm of talking to you. I know that no matter what I say, you'll forget it ten seconds later."
"What the hell are you talking about, Fleetwood?"
"I'm counting to ten and then I'm hanging up on you," Frank said. "One. Two."
"I was just thinking about being a kid ..." Fleetwood said.
"Three. Four. Five."
"... and how you always believe that you're going to do better than your parents. You see all the mistakes they make, and how easy it would be to avoid doing the same things, and you're positive that you'll avoid those traps, that you'll never repeat their mistakes."
"Then you grow up and, in spite of all your best efforts, you go ahead and turn into your parents. Do you think you've turned into your parents, Frank?"
"Nine," Frank said. "Ten. My parents? A henpecked hat salesman going through his third or fourth midlife crisis and -- take your pick of wives: a nutcase who thinks she's going to take over the galaxy, or a drug-addled housewife who didn't actually notice when I ran away from home? I think the short answer would be ... no."
"Well, of course you
wouldn't care if you do. You had an ideal home life."
"I can see I'm not the only one who doesn't listen," Frank said, reaching for the disconnect button. "Look, Fleetwood. Life's an infinite series of screw-ups. I don't waste time regretting my mistakes. I've already done better than either of my parents ever did, not necessarily on the parenting front, but certainly from the standpoint of making something out of myself; and from what little I know of your parents, so have you. Your kids get the same chance. Now go to sleep," he added softly. "And if you call me again, so help me, I will send Guido down there to kill you."
The screen went dead.
"Good night to you too," Fleetwood said.
He tapped his fingers on the desk and stared at the comm. Finally he sighed, and closed his eyes.
"I'm sorry, Chris. I just don't know what to say."
He picked up the bottle and, finding that it was empty, tossed it over his shoulder. It bounced off the wall and came to rest in a box of old machine parts. Fleetwood got another bottle from the bottom drawer of his desk and shoved it into a pocket of his jacket, alongside the data stik, which he fingered gently again. Then he got up.
"Lights off," he said quietly as he opened the door, and closed and locked it behind him.
The natural-stone corridors of the office block were dim and silent. Fleetwood walked purposefully, hands buried in his pockets, touching the data stik now and again. He left the office block, passed the tube station, and kept walking, into the heart of the sleeping, underground city. There was no apparent reason for a subterranean city to observe a 24-hour wake-sleep schedule, no reason but the long-proven fact that most humans need regular periods of light and dark, regular times to sleep and wake. Like the need to bear and nurture children, it was bound up in the biology of the species.
The city might sleep, but the Galleria never did. The 24-hour market and carnival occupied one of the old ice caverns near the outskirts of Kismet proper. Fleetwood sat cross-legged on one of the many bridges spanning the cavern's width, and looked down at the holographic displays and neon lights below him. Strains of music drifted up to him from nightclubs and brothels.
"Ever wonder how many jumpers we get from these bridges?" a soft voice said behind him.
"No, to be honest, I never had," Fleetwood said without looking around. "But now you've got me curious."
Morphine came and sat down beside his father, leaving a safe padding of distance between them. "Well, it depends. A few a week. More so around holidays. Probably because it's the only place in the entire city that's tall enough to jump from."
"How many survive?"
"Most of them," Morphine said. "The Galleria really isn't that high, and the chances of landing on a roof, awning or something else that'll break your fall are fairly good."
"Seems like a stupid way to commit suicide," Fleetwood remarked. "Especially considering how many sure ways there are to get killed in this town. Hell, if you want to die, all you have to do is walk out any airlock without a helmet on. It doesn't get much surer than that."
"I don't think most people who commit suicide want to die," Morphine said. "I don't think they want it to be sure."
"What ... so someone will stop them at the last minute?"
"Maybe." Morphine shrugged. His many piercings glimmered with small rainbows, catching the lights coming up from below. "Or maybe they want God to do it. If you play Tertian roulette and win, couldn't it mean that, no matter how meaningless your life might seem, somebody's got a plan for it? Maybe that makes it easier for them to go on. If they survive, that is."
"That's very profound, in a depressing and freaky sort of way," Fleetwood said. The kid might be drifting aimlessly through his life, but sometimes he seemed far, far older than fourteen, or however the hell old he was now.
"Just something I thought of, one time." Morphine toyed with the remora on his cheek. It squirmed uncomfortably. "So what made you think I'd be here?"
"You're always here. Where else do kids go in this town?"
"Say," Fleetwood said. "Where do you live, anyway?" He was struck by a slight sense of shame that he'd never thought to ask before.
"Here and there," Morphine said, shrugging again.
"You have places to sleep?"
Fleetwood reached in his pocket for the bottle. The data stik clinked gently against the plastiglass as he took it out. "Do you drink?"
Fleetwood picked at the snap-top of the bottle until it popped beneath his thumb.
"What is it?" Morphine asked.
"I dunno. Whatever was handy." Fleetwood held it up and squinted at the label in the dim light. "Uh, Iridian Coast chardonnay."
"That's a kind of wine?"
"A good kind?"
"Not too bad. Better than the Gaian paint-thinner you've probably had." Fleetwood sipped, nodded approvingly and passed the bottle over.
Morphine took a gulp, and coughed on it. "That's pretty good," he choked. "Nice ... flavors, and all of that."
"Bullshit. You don't drink much, do you?" Fleetwood asked, taking the bottle back.
"I've had it before, but not that often." Morphine lay back on the bridge, gazing up at the ceiling high overhead, at the reflected colors glittering from the covers on the darkened strip-lights. "Drugs are easier to get. Less side effects usually."
"Hmm." Fleetwood took another drink and lay back, too. "Want more?"
" 'Kay." Morphine took the offered bottle.
"I ever tell you about the time I got hopped up on brain-jolt at the wrong voltage, thought I was a marmoset and spent two days clinging to the ceiling of my office?"
"Uh ... no, Dad. I don't think so. Is this going to be one of those stay-away-from-drugs type of stories?"
Fleetwood gave him a confused, sideways look. "No, why would it be? It was kinda fun."
"Oh, well, then. Tell away."
The night wore on as they talked, laughed and passed the bottle back and forth. Below them, the music from the Galleria's transitory after-hours businesses swelled and faded, and the colored lights danced and then, one by one began to wink out, as the nighttime crowd slowly thinned and drifted back to their homes. Slowly, slowly, the lights of Kismet began to brighten again on another day.
The original working title for this story was "Better Than Our Fathers." The name of Frank's daughter has gone through several iterations at this point (and may yet change again).
The story about Fleetwood, bad drugs and clinging to the ceiling was also related by Taz in "Hunter's Moon"
, although she remembered the details slightly differently.
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