The Electric Minute, Volume 5

The Electric Minute Cover Vol 5 Front V1 reduced for web insertion

Includes Cask, a novella!

The Electric Minute

Volume 5

The Game of the Century - This is baseball on a galactic scale. Care to make a bet?

The Sky Bridge - Walking the sky is the only way to prove your bravery.

Super Hero High - What's normal . . . when everyone has a superpower?

The Children - What happens when the "smart" world begins to outthink us?

Sky Dreams - If I wake up here, am I still alive down there?

Jam Session - The best party-goers are those who only come out at night.

The Field Trip - Do the walls keep them out . . . or us in?

Cask (a novella) - There are worse things than crash landing on a distant world.

Plus 10 more amazing tales from a master of speculative fiction.

Look for Volume 5, coming out Fall 2019.

Available Now from Amazon in Paperback  $12.95  Kindle Edition  $.99

Read five favorite tales from The Electric Minute, Volume 5. Click here!

Thank you for visiting Three Skillet Publishing.

The Electric Minute, Volume 5, Sample Stories

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The Game of the Century

 

MY FIRST PITCH in the majors, the first system-wide playoff in over a decade, and I was ecstatic.

I spit in my glove, and I squinted through my visor. Digital readouts spun just outside my line of sight, and I focused on the narrow field of vision just in front of me. I couldn’t see any players to my right or left, but then I wouldn’t. They were all near Mars, Venus, or one of the asteroids out in the Belt. My feet were firmly planted on moonsoil, the dust of the homeworld, the place where Solar Ball originated.

This would be the greatest game ever! Seventeen billion fans were tuned in, although those on Triton or Pluto would be watching this in four hours, plus or minus, but to them it would be as exciting, since it would be the same as in real time. Even Earth faced a slight delay, though most viewers wouldn’t notice.

“Batter up!”

The call came through my helmet, and I cocked my head to the left and to the right, finally focusing on the readouts to either side. The left images were from a scanning telescope, searching for the batter out near Mars. Once I fired off the ball, he would ignite his engines at full thrust, hoping to intercept it and ricochet it sunward. If he managed to make contact, my team’s job was to capture it and haul tailfins back to the Omega Station before the batter could get to Europa or Ganymede to refuel. If we missed, the batter had unobstructed travel permits to the four designated bases, and we could do nothing about it. You couldn’t retrieve a ball from the sun; it was as good as out of the park.

On the right side of my helmet, my display revealed my players. We had two three-man hyper-drive Newtons out near Venus, a single-seater Mercedes-Einstein near where I stood on the Moon, and four ion-drive Teslas skirting Mars, Jupiter, and the asteroid belt. We were leaving no corner of the Solar System undefended.

I studied their positions, and I considered the exact location the batter might be. Chances were he was in an armored Mazda-Renault runabout, with accessory booster drives. It’s what I would use, if I were up to bat. If so, he would be quick, and I had to allow for that. I needed to aim just far enough off that he had to chase my pitch, but not so far off he couldn’t get to it before it passed him by. I didn’t want to give him a free pass to the any of the assigned bases, so I had to make sure my balls were within range of his ship.

Dang, I wish I knew what powerplant he was sporting. A rotary Thunderbolt? They were the best Mazda-Renault had ever built.

A red message light clicked on near my chin. I tagged it with my tongue, and my heads-up display obscured my faceplate for a moment. I scanned down it and began to grin. This was my hoped-for signal from my catcher positioned on the dark side of Mars. He’d managed to identify the exhaust output from the batter’s ship, a Nissan-Clarke Fuzzbuster. I’d piloted one before, and I knew what its response parameters were. If I could put a long spin on the ball, with just enough vector thrust to intercept with Mars’ gravity, I might be able to fool the batter into stressing out his thrusters long enough to overheat the exhaust manifolds and kick the engine into limp mode for a few seconds. That’s all I needed, and my catcher could snag the ball in his cargo nets and bring it home, giving the batter an out before he got to first base.

I stepped on the mound and up to the rail launcher controls. Above me, the 22-ton baseball hovered in its magnetic field atop the rails, a chrome-alloy, dimpled sphere designed for speed and accuracy. Inside were preset motors that could affect the shape and balance of the sphere in flight, affecting the yaw, pitch, and roll of the ball. I had to input my sequence of instruc-tions now, and once it was launched, it was out of my hands. Whatever instructions I gave couldn’t be recalled or changed once it was on the move.

At my keyboard, an oversized Logitech-Shapiro nearly four feet wide, I looked toward Earth. Orbital telescopes were turned my way, marking my every move and trying to read what I intended to do. The oversize keyboard was due to my gloved hands. I had programmed the keys with shortcuts that would trigger cascades of instructions, so the media could guess all they wanted, but no one would know where the ball was headed, until it got there.

I was the best at ball programming, and I grinned as I keyed in my login code. The keyboard lighted up, and I took a deep breath and reached out my balled fist.

D. I stepped back and watched the rollers on the rail launcher begin to slowly turn. The entire world would be trying to figure out where it would stop. Bets would be riding high on that one hit on the key-board. I reached out again and punched another key.

M. The chrome-alloy sphere began to quiver. Something was happening inside, but the directions were mine, and they could only observe, bet, and either win or lose.

Then I speeded up. I knew exactly the sequence to achieve the launch and trajectory I needed. R. L. Z. A. Star. Bracket. 3. 5. B. A. M. I hit them fast and sure, knowing my every move was being recorded.

The final three were just for fun, as my sequence ended with the number 5, and I stepped away. The rail launcher had adjusted itself to my predetermined position, and with a ground-shaking whump, the chrome-alloy baseball was gone, fired into the black-ness with explosive speed.

I raised my arms in a victory stance. I was happy with my pitch. Very happy.

Of course, it would be three days before we’d know if the ball was intercepted or not. It had to go all the way to Mars. But then, baseball’s always had a reputation for being a slow burn. The networks would tune back in three days from now, and the other team would learn how good my aim really was.


The Dolly Principle

 

ALL THE NUNS at the orphanage were ruthless except for Sister Francis.

She was the honor-bound one, the true saint among the wild hoards, the only member of the Ange-line Sisterhood Home for the Outcast faculty that still played by the rules.

If anyone believed there were still rules.

It was the newly instituted lottery system that was the true culprit. The State had decided there weren’t enough kids to go around, and it was time to divvy up the excess being held in governmental care. Parcel them out, so to speak, for a price. Just slip your credit chip into a reader, and for low monthly installments, you could have a chance at a flesh-and-blood child of your very own.

They didn’t tell you your odds were about one in fifty thousand, but heck, when your emotions are swirled in the mix, what’s five grand compared to the chance to be a parent in a newly baby-free world? Everyone wanted a grab at the last children that would ever be born on planet Earth.

 

AT FIRST, THE lottery was a good thing. A very good thing. Think how many tots had grown up in orphanages, and no one wanted them because they weren’t babies anymore? That was no longer the case. Beds were emptied by the dozens every week, and the supporting organizations were blessed with baskets of cash to improve their facilities, make lives better for those children left, and run the new lottery system with flash and panache.

The whole schlemiel became quite a media sensation, including giant, lighted billboards, televised ads, and its own production company, with a live show broadcast into America’s homes each Friday at seven.

Then the system began running out of children. That was when the nuns (except for Sister Francis) stepped up to the plate. The lottery had changed their lives, put a new roof on the orphanage, and even constructed a brand-new recreational facility with an indoor pool. They did so well, Angeline’s was one of the few holdouts that continued to provide new flesh for the lottery when the rest of the world’s orphanages began drying up and closing down.

No one questioned how they did it, but they should. The answer was ingenious. Diabolical. Beyond belief, and certainly not within God’s holy plan for reproduction for the species.

They followed the Dolly Principle.

 

BACK IN 1996, the first adult mammal (Dolly, the sheep) was cloned into a new and identical being. It was the idea of getting more bang for the buck, without having to go through the process of selecting only the best breeding animals for new stock. From then on, cloning was a fascinating area of research, but the technique never transferred over to people. No one saw a need or purpose, and on religious grounds, it was completely taboo. Only God could engineer a body capable of housing a human soul, so only God had the right to form a human being.

Perhaps the nuns were the next best thing.

Underneath their new indoor pool, the nuns had a state-of-the-art medical research facility built. Theo-retically for studying childhood disease and improving the medical care of their charges, it was only later that the truth came out. From each child that came through the facility, a bone marrow stem cell sample was taken and stored. Then, systematically, new children were grown so that they came on the market at various ages. That left the world unsuspecting and the global supply of youngsters less diminished than it might have been otherwise.

You’d think win-win, but it was more. You see, the nuns didn’t tell anyone, and that’s what caused them to get caught out. When their new crop of cloned kiddos reached marriageable age, they needed—per state and local laws—to get blood tests. In the mix and confusion of the impossible anomalies that came from results that were too similar to be random, DNA tests soon proved that numerous peo-ple out there had identical physical makeups.

They were duplicates of one another, and no one could fathom how that could have occurred.

That’s where Sister Francis came in. See, the nuns at Angeline Sisterhood were meticulous in their research, but they were more afraid of getting caught. So, when a child won the lottery and was sent off with his or her brand-new parents, all orphanage documentation was summarily destroyed. Sister Francis foresaw the implications in releasing people into society with identical DNA. Eventually, statutory incest would be the norm, because everyone would be genetically identical to everyone else.

So, she kept secret records, biblically accurate ones, about which cloned children were begat from which previous ones. At first the public was appalled, but eventually they came around, as no more children were being born naturally, and the begat records were released onto the Internet. The information became part of a person’s personal records, like eye color, height, or weight. It’s become an icebreaker at parties to ask someone’s DNA source.

Humanity is now being kept alive via the Dolly Principle. Respected organizations across the world have become involved, cloning children willy-nilly, and it’s become the acceptable norm.

But who wants to marry their brother or sister? Thank God for Sister Francis. She’s the true saint among us all.


The Sky Bridge

 

MY FEAR WOULD be hard to conquer, but I had to do it if I wanted peace.

I placed my foot on the Sky Bridge, not enough to carry my weight, but just so I could feel the smooth, clear surface under the thin leather of my shoe.

The Bridge was very old. No one alive any longer knew of what it was constructed, or what made it behave as it did. It was clear as though made of air but hard as if rock were under your feet. It sometimes talked to you, and it cracked if you stood in one place for too long.

No one had ever fallen through that I knew, but there were always stories of distant cousins or a traveling clan come to worship at the Sky Temple that had lost someone. The bottom of the chasm was so distant that it was impossible to retrieve any lost souls, so if they were gone, they became part of the legend, forever enshrined in the tales of the myster-ious Sky Bridge.

“Come, Siri, be brave.”

I looked at the rock above me to see Guri with his short legs wrapped around a tree that clung precari-ously to the cliff. He’d never dared the Sky Bridge, but he didn’t mind taunting others. He would tell them, “I will, when I’m bigger.” Yet, he was older than me, and I was here. The thought irritated her, and she drew her foot back.

“I am brave. I’m doing this, and you’re not.”

“Sure, brave princess. I saw you pull your foot away. Come up the trail, and we’ll pass that way.”

The trail wound along the cliff face above the Sky Bridge, but it took a firm foot and a steady hand to navigate the ledges and roots that ran from the Village of the Clouds to the Sky Temple. It could be done safely – with practice – and I had made the passage many times, but the Sky Bridge was level and flat, if very frightening, and it would save an hour or more to the Temple and the same in return.

“I’m waiting,” Guri called, laughing at me, I was sure. Despite his size, his voice had deepened in the past season, and he would soon be forced to walk the Sky Bridge or face the derision of the village. He plucked leaves from a branch and tossed them down at me. His arms might be short, but they were corded with muscle. I noticed that. The leaves fluttered through the air. Several landed on the Sky Bridge, although most caught in a gust of wind and disap-peared over the side.

“Should I run?” I was cold with fear. The leaves hadn’t made the Bridge crack, and sometimes they did. Maybe this would be a day when the Bridge was kind, and it wouldn’t speak with me. It would ignore me and allow me to walk its full length, all the way to the Sky Temple.

“It doesn’t matter. The Bridge is either awake or not. If you run or walk, it makes no difference.” Guri swung his legs back and forth, and their shadows reached down to the Bridge as if they were giant hands pounding on the clear surface and inviting the mysterious voice to come alive.

“Stop with the feet, Guri. You’ll wake the Bridge.” I looked down its length, all clear, except for supports every now and then, seemingly growing out of the cliff face. Why the village elders had never laid planks of wood along the bridge I’d never figured out, but right then, I wanted to return home and tell them to do it now! It was a long way between supports. Perhaps there were no trees tall enough.

“I’m bored, Siri. Do it or not. I’ll be at the Temple if you decide to join me.”

“No, Guri. Wait.” I looked at him. He was already backing out of the tree, and I couldn’t see his face for the leaves. I didn’t want to do this alone. “I’m going now, Guri.”

“Are you, really?” His face reappeared, his eyes once more bright with anticipation.

I knew the feeling of expectation. I had stood on the ledges and watch those below who attempted the Sky Bridge. Most travelers tied ropes around their waist in case the Bridge shattered, and many made it partway before the Bridge woke. Often they collapsed in wails and screams. More than one had been pulled from the fragile-looking surface by the long rope around their waists.

I didn’t wear a rope, and Guri had said he wouldn’t pull me off even if I did. I must face my fear on my own if I wanted him to leave me in peace.

“One foot, Guri.” I placed my sole on the Bridge, and I put pressure on it. The clear surface held, as solid as stone, and I grew braver. One side was the cliff, and the other more of the clear substance that made up the Bridge. I could walk along the stone with nothing to hold, or I could walk the air and steady my nerves with the shiny, hollow branch that wasn’t wood that ran the length of the Sky Bridge.

I chose the middle. If the surface underneath me cracked, I didn’t know if I wanted to be next to the stone or able to grab the hollow, shiny branch, so I held my arms wide, not quite able to touch either one. I was to the third support when I heard the Sky Bridge come awake. The words were broken at first, and slow, as if the Bridge were coming to life after a very long sleep. I thought to run but froze as they quickened into a normal voice.

“Wel . . . el . . . el . . . come to the East Taihang Mountain Glass Bridge.”

I looked down at my feet. No cracking. The floor of the sky was as normal. I breathed a sigh of relief. It was okay. I wouldn’t fall through today. I wouldn’t become forever enshrined in legend, part of the tale told at the Sky Temple celebrations.

“Good job, Siri! The Bridge is awake, and you haven’t fallen!”

I didn’t look up, but I heard the enthusiasm in Guri’s voice. Still, I saw the distance I had yet to travel, and the bridge was awake. I was safe for the moment, but I had a long way to go. I couldn’t speak, so I jiggled a hand and hoped it appeared a wave, and I shifted my weight to take another step.

The Bridge shattered under my feet with a loud crackling sound. I didn’t know whether to jump towards the stone or fling my arms around the hollow limb. I saw the support just in front of me, and I leaped forward to land on it. I gasped, feeling safe for the moment, but realizing I couldn’t go backward. I could only move forward. I looked behind me to see the Bridge magically repairing itself. I was tempted but realized it would only crack again. I took a careful step forward, then two, and the Bridge crackled and shattered again. Once more I scurried to the support, the Bridge cracking under my feet as I scrambled along. Once, I tripped, my face pressed flat against the bridge, and I watched the surface crack under my eyes. I could see my death as I lay there, but I forced myself to inch forward until I reached the next support.

It seemed hours before I managed the end. Even so, I made it to the Temple before Guri. When he joined me, I pretended I hadn’t been frightened at all. I did have one question for him, though, and I asked him before we went inside.

“What’s glass, Guri?”

He shrugged, said, “I don’t know,” and together we ran inside.

 

Road Trip

 

A ROAD TRIP is exactly what me and the girls need.

Well, road, heh, that’s an anachronism. There are no roads anymore, not in our world, but you know what I mean. A RODE trip, a chance to see something other than the same four walls we knock about in every day of the week.

“Cherie,” I call, pushing at the door into my daughter’s room. When I press on it, it shimmers and vanishes, rather than swings aside. I stumble at the unexpected lack of resistance, and I groan. Cherie’s my five-year-old, and she’s taken to code like a sapling to water. If she’s this good at this age, what tricks will she have up her illusory sleeve when she hits puberty?

“Dad?” Cherie smiles prettily at me from in front of her dollhouse. She taps on her keyboard, and the little family in the lighted and decorated rooms freeze then slowly fade from view, until they vanish in a faint wink of light.

“What’s with the door? It’s a cool trick, but I nearly tripped when it disappeared. Girl, you’ll be better than your old man before you’re ten.”

“I already am. What did you need, Dad?”

That’s Cherie, good and she knows it. She isn’t bragging, but she isn’t modest, either. I let it go. “Want to see if Haley wants to go somewhere?”

“Sure, but like where? I can plan something, if you like.” She picks up her keyboard and turns in her chair to face me. She sets the keyboard on her knees and taps one key. The room around us begins to quiver, as if it wants to become something different.

“Hold on, Sweetie.” I gently take the keyboard from her and set it aside. The room settles back into its default scenario. “A real trip. A road trip.”

“You mean leave?” Her eyes grow round, and she smiles. “We can do that, just go?”

“Anywhere, Baby. Just you name the place, Disneyland, the beach, or even the mall to do some shopping. We could visit Grampsie and Grammy, if you’d like. We’ll need to get Haley on board, but we can do that, can’t we?” I kneel before her and take her hands into mine. I can see she’s excited by the idea. We haven’t taken a road trip since before, well, since before the accident. My wife didn’t survive, and the girls and I have been in a holding pattern ever since. Thank goodness for my insurance policy with Life Ever After. Without them, none of this would be possible. Now it’s time to move on, take a road trip, get back into the action. We can’t hide in this limbo forever.

“The zoo,” she says firmly, and she stands and brushes past me, yelling as she exits the room, “Haley, they have giraffes at the zoo. You’re going with us. You can’t say no, because they have boys there.”

I smile. Haley’s fifteen and needing to stretch her wings. She’s been asking me let her explore, and I haven’t been ready. Today is the day.

“Julie,” I whisper to the walls of my daughter’s bedroom. “It’s time to begin to live again. I’ll let you know how it goes.”

“Dad, are we really going on a trip?” Haley interrupts me from outside the door, and just as she starts to walk through, the door reappears, solid and closed, blocking her. The knob rattles. Through it, I hear her wail, “Dad, Cherie’s locking me out again.”

I reach for the knob, only to have the door shimmer and vanish again. Behind Haley, Cherie giggles, and I see an impish glint in her eye. She’s set the door to block her sister but allow me access. Even cleverer than I thought, but I reprimand her for peace’s sake.

“No locking, Cherie, unless you’re changing clothes or something private. You’ve been told that.”

“I can fix it, Dad.” She pushes jauntily past her sister, takes the keyboard, and taps it several times. I see the smile on her face. She’s made her point, that she has power over her sister. “Fixed. Can we go now?”

“Certainly. Ready, Haley?”

She nods with undisguised anticipation, and I send my okay to Central Processing to debit my account, drop our privacy barriers, and open the channels to the outside world. With no transition, we are in the car. I choose a big one, with a third row of seats in the back so the girls can move around and do things, play games and such. Also, it leaves room for things they might want to bring back. And sleeping arrangements. Cherie had picked the zoo, but there are plenty of other places to see between here and there, and it will be late before we return.

“Can we visit the Statue of Liberty?” Cherie’s in the back, because Haley’s the older, and she leans in between the seats.

“You can visit it anytime. You said zoo.” Haley’s eyes soak up the passing scenery. Skyscrapers glitter in the sun, vast expanses of blacktop surge with cars, and neon lights blink seductively. It’s everything at once, anything you want and all at your fingertips.

“Please, Dad? Just drive by on the way. It’s different from the car. Please?”

Cherie sniffs, and I think she might cry, although they’ll be crocodile tears. I pat Haley’s hand and ask, “Okay, Honey?”

“If we just drive by and don’t stop,” she allows.

I mentally okay the extra expense with Central Processing, and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty appears, very small at first, but within moments, towering over us, streaked green with age, and magnificent.

“Not so fast, Dad. Slow down.” Cherie’s already in the back and has her face glued to the window, fascinated.

“Whatever you want, Princess.” It’s an extra charge, as it takes up more processing time, but I approve the expense, and the car slows. The sun glints off several places where the copper on the statue has been recently repaired. Haley glances at me and whispers, “Zoo, Dad,” and I nod, telling her, “In a minute.”

Then we leave the Statue behind and continue our road trip. To make it memorable, I negotiate with Central Processing for a package to include driving by Niagara Falls, the Twin Towers, the Garden of the Gods, and a portion of the Grand Canyon. Even Haley is oohing and aahing by the time we reach the zoo.

After a fun day, especially the primates, where I pay extra to have a small monkey leap from the enclosure to pull on the girls’ hair, we head home. I reconfigure the interior of the car into sleeping berths and smile at the forms snuggled under blankets with smiles on their faces.

“Julie,” I whisper, knowing there will be no electronic ghost to hear my words. “It was a good day. I wish you could have been here.”

I sometimes wish the girls and I had survived the crash, and then I could watch them grow into adults. Still, digital survival is a better life than what Julie got, and I’ll have my girls at my side, forever a family of three.

 

Flipping the Tables

 

WHEN ALLEN ARRIVED home, there were 42 messages on his answering machine.

To be more precise, there had been 42 messages on his machine. He’d watched from outside the door, peering through the wavy glass, hoping to get inside before they knew he was home. His messages always tried to hide from him, and he was expecting an urgent one. He didn’t have time to play games tonight.

He had inserted his key quietly, his eyes on the red numbers, and squinting to be sure of the count. He didn’t expect to contain them all. That was impossible. In the time it would take him to set his briefcase down and sprint across the living room, several were bound to escape. If he knew how many there were, that made it easier. He’d know when he had found them all and could stop looking.

He slipped and fell as soon as he stepped through the door. He’d forgotten about the mail. The postman usually bound it with a band, but she must have been out today. The advertisements (all he ever got anymore) were scattered loosely, and the slick sheaths of glossy paper provided no traction at all for his leather-soled wingtips. When he’d pulled himself to his feet, sore knee and all, the machine was already down to ten, and the red numbers were frittering away fast.

“No,” he cried, with some emphasis in his voice. His heart pounded, and he could imagine what his evening would become. The messages would be like little ferrets, burrowing throughout the house, running down the wires, and hiding anywhere they thought he wouldn’t look. They wouldn’t stay put, either, but would scramble away if they thought he was getting close.

Hide-and-seek. That was it, the best way he could describe it. Smart televisions, smart appliances, all in a smart house. The world had gotten so smart it liked to tease its creators. Make ’em look like saps. Be wicked little children, just because they could.

By the time Allen got to the answering machine, only three messages remained. He unplugged the cable from the side, trapping them inside before they could escape, too. The connector was hot in his hand, suggesting that they’d been fleeing two and three at a time. No wonder they’d gotten out so fast. He pushed the input icon and held it close to his lips where he whispered in what he hoped was an ominous tone.

“Trapped, heh, heh, heh. If you want me to listen to you, you’d better think about helping me locate your compadres. If not, I know where the delete icon is, and I’ve tapped it before, you can bet your bottom dollar. Think about that for a while.”

He released the input icon and dropped the machine back on the table. He’d come back to it later when the messages that hadn’t escaped had a chance to stew awhile. He wouldn’t delete them before listening to each one, but they didn’t know that, or at least, he thought they didn’t.

He knelt in the entry hall and began to gather up the ads and circulars. When his shoe had landed on the pile of papers, one ad had flipped through the pages like a calendar giving up a whole year in a day, probably the very one that had taken him to the floor. It was still open with a shiny new answering machine spread across the glossy sheet.

“New, one-way electronic gate,” Allen read. His eyes took in the rest of the ad, locking on a set of boldface words farther down. “Messages can get in, but they can’t get out. You are the gatekeeper. No more Morse code messages through your microwave or lip-synched announcements during your favorite TV show. You’ll now be able to listen to your phone messages when you want to, not when your messages decide to jump out and startle you.”

That was true, too. The messages liked to play games. Wicked games, to Allen’s way of thinking. Once he’d been in the tub when the doorbell rang in an odd pattern. He’d scrambled with a towel to get to the door to find no one there. Three more times and he realized the doorbell pattern was ringing in old Morse code. He’d counted the pattern, drawing it out in soap on the wall tiles, to discover his order at the farmer’s market was ready for him to pick up the next day.

“Two can play at this game,” he muttered, as he stood with the ad in his hand. He carried the slick, glossy circular into the living room and pulled over the phone. He paused for a moment before lifting the receiver. It wasn’t likely one of the messages had hidden in his phone, as that was too obvious. They were more likely in his alarm clock, the oven controls, or even the electric blanket remote. Yeah, they could do that, too, hide and jump from wireless device to wireless device. If one was in the phone, it could warn the others, and then his plan wouldn’t work.

He clicked on the phone and looked at the display for any sign of an electronic intruder. It seemed normal and he began to dial the number on the ad. When it picked up, he said, “Hold just a moment, please.” Then he reached for his answering machine, pressed the input icon, and turned back to his phone.

“I’m sorry. Thank you for holding. I saw your ad for your new answering machine, the one with the one-way electronic gate that traps the messages inside. My messages have been escaping from my old machine, and I’d like to see about ordering one of yours.”

Allen listened to the salesman telling him the particulars, all the while holding the input icon with his finger. When the man paused, Allen said, “I’d like to order one. I don’t have my credit card with me. Can I place that order tomorrow?”

After hanging up, Allen mused aloud, his finger still on the input icon, “At least tomorrow, I’ll have my new answering machine, and my messages will never escape again. I guess I’ll plug this one back in one last time.” He released the icon and slipped the cable back into its slot. He watched the red numbers go from three to two to one, but he smiled. He was certain this would work. Sure enough, after about two minutes, the numbers started to climb, flickering to ten pretty fast, then pausing, as if some of the messages had hidden themselves pretty well, then in a rush climbing all the way to 42. When the last number flashed on the readout, Allen unplugged the cable so the messages couldn’t get back out.

“Not so smart after all, are you?” he taunted. “That was a recorded message. It’s after hours, and there was no one there to take my call.”

He didn’t need a new answering machine. He just needed to be smarter than the messages on his current one, to flip the tables on them, so to speak, and that wasn’t hard, at all.

  

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