“The Grand Finale” by Liam Moran
I’m one of the few who can honestly say they were there when the big change happened in the literary community. There were eighteen of us to be exact; most of us came alone. Several others will tell you they were there and recount their stories. Ninety-nine percent of the time they’re full of shit. But I’ll tell you how it started. I was there. I saw the truth.
We were in this dive bar called The Starving Artist. It got its name from a pair of friends—one wannabe writer and one wannabe actor—who realized they’ll never support themselves on their coveted jobs, so they opened a bar with a suitably self-deprecating name. The actor died of an overdose a few years back, so only the failed writer runs the place now.
But when they first opened it, and to this day, they wanted to make it unique, so in the corner of the bar was a stage where people would do standup or read their short stories or poetry or grab an acoustic guitar and sing their sorrows. Every once in a while, someone would try an incredibly low-budget play. No one really listened to anyone who was performing that much, unless the performers brought friends. Typically, the people would mull over what they hate about their lives and drink away their sorrows. Occasionally they’d listen for a minute or two, but then go back to their own business and order another drink. When you performed you neither did nor didn’t perform in a way. I, personally, wouldn’t count it as performing. There wouldn’t be any applause. There wouldn’t be any boos. Nobody listened after all.
The place was dark. On the walls you could see the bookshelves the owner put there, but from more than five feet away you couldn’t read what the titles of the books were or who the authors were. The place stank of stale booze, body odor, and cigarettes. A hazy fog of smoke hung thick in the room.
Out in the back, behind the dumpster, there was usually someone pedaling drugs ranging from low-grade pot to black-tar heroin. It was a hotspot. Everyone knew, but none of the patrons said anything. They weren’t affiliated with Sammy or his staff, but Sammy figured a man’s got to make a living, whether through the honest way or not.
Anyway, it was at this hole-in-the-wall dive bar where dreams go to die, that I was tossing back my fourth or fifth Tullamore Dew when this guy comes on stage shaking, but with emotion, not fear. His eyes were fearless if I’ve ever saw it. He spoke as though it was hard to talk—his voice cracking and everything—with his eyes wet with tears. Good poet or not, I had to give it up for this guy’s stage presence.
He said his poem was called “The Grand Finale”. Then he started to read. It wasn’t all that good; it was a little too melodramatic for my taste, but his presence was gorgeous. I truly believed he believed in his shit. The content was a subpar depressing poem about a man questioning if he wants to end his life or not. We’ve all heard these types of poems a bunch of times, but his presence: my God!
He was shaking and choking on his words. It was hard to see because it was so dark and there was such a thick cloud of smoke in the air, but I think he managed to squirt a tear or two out. This guy may not be the best poet, but I figured if this doesn’t work out for him, he should definitely try acting.
So he rambled about being friendless and how his family turned their backs on him and he lost his faith and all that whiney-shit. But the tremoring, the redness in his eyes, the forced cracking words being pushed out of a dry throat, the pauses for him to swallow back tears; now that was the real show. That was the real art.
My belief in his fearlessness started to change a bit. Something about him made me think that he was in some way scared—just not about performing. He had no issue with that, but there was something else that I just couldn’t figure out.
I ordered my fifth or sixth whiskey and watched this man bare his soul. I took a few hits from the drink and soaked in his performance.
On his last stanza, he reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a gun. Nobody screamed, but slowly the room became silent and they focused on the man holding the gun. The man was straight up sobbing, and finally I realized what he was scared of.
We all said we didn’t know what was going to happen—some of us even managed to convince ourselves—but we all knew. We really did. But to interrupt such a performance would be a greater sin.
I can’t tell you how the poem began, or any of the lines in the middle, but I can tell you the last one; I’ll never forget it.
The man put the gun to his head and said, “And that is my grand finale.” He paused, choked back some tears and then croaked, “Goodbye.” Then he pulled the trigger and blew his brains out in front of the enraptured eighteen people.
Most people would assume that after such a scene everyone would scream and a chaotic Helter Skelter commotion would ensue. But at this poetry reading late in the night, there was nothing but serenity and admiration.
When it happened, everyone was silent. Nobody moved as the gunshot echoed in our ears. We held our drinks stationary and we sat there shocked. Then somebody started clapping. Another man joined him. Within a matter of seconds, we all were clapping and shouting our congratulations. It was beautiful. None of us had seen anything like it. A poem had to be honest if you gave it that kind of an ending.
The problem people had with poets—mainly poets who use poetry as a way to cope, which is most of them—is that they talk about their depression and hopelessness and despair, but nobody could fully know if this was true or not. As for that corpse that laid in front of us, nobody doubted his depression. Nobody doubted his hopelessness. Nobody doubted his despair. How could you? His body was still warm even though a quarter of his head was missing. He not only wrote about his pain; he followed through with it. He was the only real poet any of us ever knew.
The applause continued for several minutes even though nobody took a bow, and nobody was there to realize we were applauding them. But we did it for the art. We did it for the honesty.
The police and ambulance showed up. I always wondered why they even bothered calling the ambulance when the top of his head was missing. He shot a magnum revolver clean through temple to temple. I don’t think any EMT could fix that at that point. Even Dr. Frankenstein would need an intact brain.
One of the men who was at the infamous and seminal performance was a literary critic for a magazine. He wasn’t expecting to go there for a story; he was just grabbing a drink to not focus on life like the rest of us. But he found his story there and wrote a cover story on ‘honest realism’. It was realism all the way through. You don’t stop at an ambivalence to suicide or alluding to suicide, you go all the way. The literary crowd ate it up. We found out the poet’s name: Guy Sanders. Nobody heard of him before, but now he was the hottest name in town. Nobody knew anything else about him, and few people could quote more than one line that he had written, but he was a sensation. He built up a fan base and, over time, imitators.
It started off with people trying to make a name for themselves. Nobodies who saved up a particular short story or poem as their farewell, read it, and killed themselves to the sound of booming applause. The government wouldn’t allow public suicide, so they used a euphemism. They would say they were performing their ‘Grand Finale’, and everyone knew what it meant.
They sold out theatres—and these were nobodies—and people would camp outside to buy tickets to their suicides. They outsold the bigtime poets and authors, whether their fame came from being critically acclaimed or from commercial popularity, it didn’t matter. People didn’t want to see them; they’d much prefer to see a nobody slice their neck open or swallow a bottle of sleeping pills as they drift into nothingness. So the bigtime authors and poets had to join the fray if they wanted their legacy to stay relevant.
The ones who made a name for themselves previous to the spate of public suicides had an advantage. They would say they were doing readings across the country—the more popular ones went across the world—saying that this was their ‘Farewell Tour’. Performing their ‘Grand Finale’ was code for a stage event; but if they were going on tour it was, ‘Farewell Tour’. That was code that they would commit suicide somewhere on that tour. The benefit to this was they could drag it out and get more fame or money for this.
There was still a benefit for getting money. Even if you did die, you got to decide what happens with that money afterwards. Many writers are narcissistic people, so several of them chose to build monuments in their honor. Others chose a beneficiary, like a friend or family member. Whatever you chose to do with your money after you died was your business; it was up to the place holding the event or tour to follow through with it and obey your wishes.
The phrases started coming out. “Anybody who’s anybody in literature is dead.” “You have to be dead to be in this business.” A Time magazine cover read, “Can Death Breathe New Life into Literature?”
It was during this new and exciting time that I tried to climb aboard this train, only I didn’t want to die. Luckily for me, I had my brother who was a doctor, and my best friend was a plastic surgeon. The plan was set.
I gave my first performance of “The Grand Finale” and was shocked by how many people came. I’m embarrassed to say that I had stage fright. I felt envious of all those other performers who did this before me. Granted, if all goes according to plan, nobody will recognize me, but unlike me, they never intended to perform again.
So, I did my act, performed my “Grand Finale” and then downed a bottle of pills and felt myself drift into nothingness. By the time I lost my ability to move and felt myself drifting away, the curtain dropped accompanied with thunderous applause. I closed my eyes and it all went black.
When I came to, I inhaled in shock as I smelled burned hair. My chest burned and I noticed an AED machine hooked up to me. I was lying in the back of the van with my brother, Harry, leaning over me.
“Jesus, Chuck,” he said to me, panting only slightly less than I, “I thought I lost you.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” I said through deep gasps.
Harry inserted a syringe into a vein in my right arm and muttered, “To counteract the pills.”
“I’ve never been one for needles, but I think I can officially say I’ve made bigger sacrifices to make the big bucks.” I smiled.
“Fuck, you’re crazy,” my friend Reggie said from the driver’s seat. “I can’t believe I signed up for this.”
“It’s because you know as crazy as it might be, it’ll make all three of us rich as kings,” I told him.
“So what do we do now?” Reggie asked.
“You got the corpse?” I asked.
Hank unzipped the body bag next to me. The body was fresh—almost as if it rose six feet as soon as it went six feet under. The face that looked back at me was an almost uncanny resemblance of mine.
“Spooky,” I muttered. “Got to hand it to you Reggie, you’re a damn good plastic surgeon.”
“You’re a sick man, Chuck,” Reggie says. “And you’re helping to dig up the body next time. I’m not a superstitious man, but gravedigging at the dead of night can give anyone the creeps.”
“Come on,” I told him. “I’m already putting in most of the risk as is.”
Harry was checking my vital signs when he grunted matter-of-factly, “It would reduce the time of our highest potential of getting caught by a third.”
“So…,” Reggie said, “anyone willing to answer the question I asked earlier? What do we do now?”
“We drop dead-me off at the hospital,” I nodded my head over to the corpse beside me, “then we keep real-me hidden until they pay Harry, then we move, you change our faces, we change our identities, and then we keep doing it until we’ve all made enough money to never work again,” I said matter-of-factly.
And that’s exactly what we did. I put down my brother, Harry, as the beneficiary to my staged suicide, so we all waited for a check to come in the mail and eagerly waited to see how much it was.
“Seventy-eight thousand?!” I shouted. “I killed myself up there and they don’t even give me six digits?!” I paced around steaming and ranting.
Reggie piped in, “The problem is the pills. Nobody wants to pay that much to see a man slowly fade away. They need something more dramatic, realer.”
“Please,” I said. “The audience never knows which way one of these suicides will go, so the method isn’t the problem. Maybe it’s just bad luck. We’ll try this again and see what happens.”
So we changed faces, changed identities, and did it again—this time with a noose. I hung in front of the crowd for a long period of time with a makeshift knot to avoid complete suffocation. Unfortunately, our tying skills weren’t the best, so I did choke a bit on the noose. My limbs went numb as the curtain dropped and, as I saw my brother and Reggie hurrying toward me, I blacked out from the lack of airflow. Once they dragged me outside and the coast was clear, Harry performed CPR and, just like that, I was brought back to life.
I coughed and regained my terrified suffocated breaths. We got the check and it was up to a couple hundred grand. That’s when I realized this was going to take longer than I thought, so I devised a new plan.
After moving and changing my identity once again, I got a novel published, which was pretty easy now that a large percentage of writers have offed themselves. Now there’s less competition. So, I build up a bit of notoriety, and then I let it leak all over social media, that I will be doing my “Farewell Tour” in two years to this date. I also let rumors leak on the internet that it will be a bloody ending. I pump out two more novels in that time and then I begin my tour. This time we’re not holding back. The audience wants gore, so that’s what we’re going to give them.
I wait until the very last day of the tour so I can soak up as much money as I can. Now that the Grand Finale is finally here, and everyone knows this is my last opportunity to kill myself, the place is packed.
Now this is the payoff. This is what’s going to make Harry, Reggie, and I never have to work a day in our lives again.
So, I give my reading, and get to my Grand Finale. I think I’m overacting. The first couple of times it seemed easy to shake and mimic the emotion of the first literary suicide I witnessed at The Starving Artist all those years ago. But now, with two suicides already under my belt, I don’t feel as scared. I’ve become used to killing myself at this point.
I get to the end of my Grand Finale and then slit my wrists and just stare downward in the chair. The applause comes in slow, but then picks up and soon people are screaming and whistling as if they’re asking for an encore they can’t possibly receive.
I look upward for a second and realize no curtains are dropping. Why’s it taking so long?
The blood continues to pour out of me and onto the carpet as the crowd gets louder and louder. When is the curtain going to drop? I wonder.
My head grows faint, and the place starts to look dimmer. There’s a lot more blood than I expected. I start to fear I may have nicked a major artery. It’s harder to see. It seems foggier. For some reason I’m reminded of the smoke-filled ambience of The Starving Artist.
When it’s too hard to lift my head, I see Reggie and Harry sprinting right at me—clearly visible by the entire audience—and then I drift off.
I come to in the back of a van again with a blood bag in an IV hooked up to my arm. My brother’s bright red, surgically altered face shows pure panic as his usually calm and steady hands shake in terror while trying to suture up my wrists.
“His eyes are open!” He shouts over his shoulder, then turns to me. “We’re taking you to a hospital. We have no other choice. Just hang on!” my brother screams.
I try but can’t speak. I see a tear roll down my brother’s cheek.
“You think we’re still getting paid?” Reggie asks from the front seat.
“Shut up, Reggie!” my brother shouts.
“I just want to make sure it wasn’t all a waste, you know,” Reggie says. “In his memory.”
“Shut the fuck up, Reggie!” my brother shouts once again. Then he turns back to me and frantically chants, “Come on, Chuck! Hang in there! Come on, you can do it!”
My eyes get foggier and dimmer, reminding me about the dim, smoke-filled room where Guy Sanders gave the only performance anyone could remember from him.
I’m fading. I grow cold. I need to accept it. Whether willingly or accidentally, in a packed auditorium or alone in a hospital bed, we all give our grand finale sometime.
Liam Moran has been published in Coffin Bell Journal, Ripples in Space, and Haunted MTL, and his two novels, ‘Saving Fiction’ and ‘Love is Delusional’ are available on Amazon. Originally from Levittown, New York, he now resides in the suburbs of Chicago, where he enjoys reading, writing, and catching the Sunday games with some friends at a local sports bar, where he engages in his love/hate relationship with the Buffalo Bills. He invites fans to follow his Facebook page @LiamMoranAuthor or go to his website at amazon.com/author/liammoran and to feel free to message him if they so desire.
Nightmarish Nature: Terrifying Tardigrades
OK so I lied. The dust hadn’t fully settled in Cozmic Debris, the space opry I’d written over the course of this month (you can catch up here with Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). In fact, it’s blown over into Nightmarish Nature for one last final huzzah…
The Last Chapter of Cozmic Debris
Kara-2-6000 had just signed on with the Voyager probe and was eagerly engaged in her first mission, en route to Mars with more components for the terraforming effort. It seemed like a pretty simple gig, cleaning up the space dust that accumulates on the vessel after landing on the red planet. She had been trained to keep her eye on her work and pay attention to details, that the dirt tended to collect in unusual ways in strange places, and that it was critical she contain and seal all of it to keep the spacecraft in proper working order. She entrusted the computer to keep the vessel on track, as it was preoccupied with doing and never engaged otherwise. No matter. She’d never been to space before and the newness of it had her rapt attention. What stories she would have to tell once she paid off her student loans and got her human body back, for surely Mars must be an exciting place…
And now for Nightmarish Nature…
So, this time on Nightmarish Nature we’re visiting Terrifying Tardigrades… Wait, seriously who comes up with this stuff anyway? Tardigrades are actually kinda cute, at least in the nerd fandom sense, and are remarkable in their ability to survive and withstand crazy adverse conditions. For all that the AI art generator doesn’t seem to have much of a clue what their anatomy is like, they really don’t do anything that scary, unless you’re a yummy little single celled critter that lives in moss in which case pretty much everything has it out for you… Oh, I see that the Cozmic Debris space opry usurped this segment. May as well run with it then.
So what’s so terrifying about tardigrades anyway?
So I don’t actually have much to say about tardigrades except that they started this whole crazy journey here on Haunted MTL. A Facebook friend posted a link to the Ze Frank True Facts video on them (linked here if the below video doesn’t load), and I was instantly hooked. It’s a great series and is part of the inspiration behind Nightmarish Nature here on HauntedMTL. So if you like learning about all kind of crazy animal facts and nature weirdness, feel free to check it out. I will mention, the show contains adult themes and is designed for (im)mature audiences, so keep that in mind as you foray into the freaky side of nature, literally.
To more of my Haunted MTL series on Nightmarish Nature about things that are a bit more terrifying, please feel free to revisit previous segments here:
Cozmic Debris: Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 3: The Dust Settles
Here’s the third installment of our space opry. For those of you keeping track, here’s Part 1 and Part 2. Thank you for following along and please be sure to keep all hands, feet, tentacles and appendages tucked safely in the overhead bins; just sit back and enjoy the ride. Because, this time, the dust settles.
It had been well over a month since Trent-2-6000 had released Ayarvenia into the Mars probe. She was a mischievous creature and flirted with him incessantly, gliding effortlessly between red cloud and ghost girl. She also managed to avoid notice by the computer, as Trent had made it abundantly clear that if the system became aware of her, he would be forced to put her back in containment, as his sole purpose aboard the spacecraft was to sweep up and trap the dust, which she still qualified as.
Ayarvenia would tease him, flitting to and fro among the static debris and dirt that still settled into every nook and cranny. How was it possible for him to be seeing so much grime still, anyway? It had been months since they had left Mars and yet Trent was finding more and more Mars dust on a daily basis; it was as if they just left yesterday. He had finally finished clearing out the computer room for the second time that day and was preparing the waste containment units for their eventual removal when he caught Ayarvenia swirling about one of the clear acrylic domes from his previous sweep, which was hermetically-sealed and ready to be brought safely back to the confines of Earth and the research laboratory.
The red cloud girl spun her way into the latch mechanism and popped it open right before Trent’s robotic eyes. The dust within was sucked out into the Voyager probe to be quickly and quietly dispersed yet again; some of it was even absorbed into Ayarvenia herself. She then latched the dome shut again and left it at the ready, as found. The container sat empty, a shell discarded.
How could he have been so naïve? It all began to make sense now; all of those sealed packages he had so painstakingly catalogued and prepared for their eventual arrival were still just empty. All of his hard work really had been for naught; he was just sweeping up the same dirt piles again and again only to have them released from the trash to disperse and begin the cycle anew. He grumbled under his breath and Ayarvenia froze in midair. She slowly whirled around and sent a lone tendril towards Trent, forming into her beautiful face as she turned to face him. She looked slightly distraught and more than a little agitated, but that melted and gave way to her usual snarky sweetness as she neared.
“Hey there, robo-boy,” she said, cooing as her unblinking eyes met his. “I didn’t hear you coming.”
“I imagine not,” Trent replied sternly. “What are you doing?”
“Oh… nothing really. Just checking up on things here. I was waiting around for you is all,” she hemmed and hawed.
“Did you find everything to your liking?” Trent snipped. “No particulate out of place or anything?”
“Everything seems okay, I guess… I’ll just leave you to it then.” The ghost girl drifted towards the far door.
“Not so fast…” Trent proclaimed. “I need to know what you’ve really been up to here. I saw you release the Mars dust from that containment unit. You know I’ve been sweeping out this room over and over for the past two days; just how much of my work are you undoing?”
”Work? Work… You call this work!” Ayarvenia’s voice raised. She was truly agitated now. “You’re blowing off my entire being without a second thought, trapping it in these nasty clear coffins, and all you can think about is whether or not you’re fulfilling your job?!”
“I… I just want to be done with this so I can get my body back and get on with my life,” Trent retorted.
“Well, Trent Just-Trent, let me break it to you, then. You’re not getting your body back, robo-boy. What makes you think they’d bother to save a lowlife human body like yours in the first place? These assignments are always dead-ends. I’ve seen them come and go… Makes no difference, in the end the researchers get what they want, and that’s more of my Mars dust for their experiments. We’re in the same boat schnookums, you and I,” the ghost girl blew hastily. “Yeah that’s right, you heard me. You’re not getting your body back. And the way things have been going around here, with you all so feverishly sweeping up every little bit of dirt you find, neither am I.”
“Wait, how would you know anything about that?” Trent stammered.
“I know things. I’ve been around. I can see and hear and feel everything all at once. Part of me is still on Mars, part of me is here in this spaceship, and part of me is on your so-called Earth, trapped in the lab catacombs awaiting who knows what fate…” Ayarvenia sighed. “I’ve tried to do what I can to save my own skin, literally. I’ve flirted with every deadbeat janitor they send on these missions. And you all just keep coming back for more…”
Suddenly a voice boomed from behind in monosyllabic chatter, “Dust-Buster, what have you done? Clean that up, now!” The camera eye that monitored the computer’s every task shifted focus to Trent and Ayarvenia and zoomed into an angry point. “Now!” it wailed. The computer was on to them.
“Shit,” Trent muttered.
“It’s okay, I’ll go willingly,” Ayarvenia whispered as she sucked herself into the ready containment unit and locked it. “Wait it out and release me again later.” She winked and settled into static suspension.
The camera eye scanned everything: the waste containment unit, the dust, Trent-2-6000… Trent froze and tried not to appear guilty. “Dust-Buster, you have one and only one job aboard this vessel. You are not doing that job. There is more dust here now than there was a week ago. You have failed,” the computer droned on. “The penalty for failure is… the airlock…”
“Wait, what?” Trent shouted, exasperated. He hadn’t even realized that was a thing. Yet another gripe for the school career guidance counselor…
“Oh no, not again,” Ayarvenia whispered. “I won’t let them take you, robo-boy Trent Just-Trent. I don’t want to lose you, not another one.”
“Silence!” the computer screeched. “You have sealed your own fates.”
The floor beneath Trent and the container began to quake and rumble. Partitions withdrew radially to a small circular channel beneath, a tube that fed into the lower part of the ship, presumably to be shot out into space. Trent-2-6000 tried to grab hold of the receding floor but his robot body was just too ungainly. He managed to wedge himself into the chasm opening only to see the waste containment dome carrying Ayarvenia slide past, her face peering up at him helplessly. He reached for her to no avail and tumbled after.
The two of them shot down the chute and through a series of rapidly opening and closing doors until the last airlock opened into the vast dark nothingness of space. Pinpoints of distant light greeted them from afar. Trent managed to latch onto the container just as they shot out into the void. The Voyager probe withdrew into the distance. The darkness enveloped the two of them. They were alone.
“Wait, I’m not dead,” Trent exclaimed.
“Of course not, silly,” Ayarvenia answered. “You’re a robot. You were made to withstand this, so that you could operate in places where there is no atmosphere.”
Trent gazed into her eyes as they floated along without purpose or reason, just more cosmic debris now.
And I’m floating in a most peculiar way.
And the stars look very different today. – David Bowie, Space Oddity
So that was Cozmic Debris… Illustrations were generated using the Cosmic template in NightCafe AI art generator. My favorite AI images are the ones that are substantially wrong, making weird mistakes in ways that a person wouldn’t make. So the tardigrades were especially fun, because it doesn’t have a good enough sense for their structure to render them sensibly. Kind of like elephants. The algorithms respond to different cues. Does it really matter how many limbs or trunks or tusks these things are supposed to have anyway…?
Cozmic Debris, Space Opry by Jennifer Weigel, Part 2: Trent-2-6000
In case you missed the first segment of this space opry (in the style of 2001 Space Odyssey), please feel free to check it out here. And now, here’s the actual story as told to me by Trent-2-6000 after the last deep consideration of tardigrades and life and dust careening through space. Maybe.
Trent-2-6000 sighed. He swept more random Mars dirt into his vacuum-hermetically sealed containment unit and went about his business on the probe. Actually, this was his business on the probe, and it was dreadfully dull. Space was supposed to be this exciting new frontier, this brave new world… but it really wasn’t any different than life back on Earth. The newness had long since worn off several trips ago, and the slow passage of the years was beginning to get to him. How long had it been now? And here he was, still playing clean up crew. He was actually sort of surprised that they couldn’t get a robot to do this job – oh wait. Sigh again.
Trent kept forgetting that he was, in fact, a robot now. There just weren’t many reminders out here, of his old body, of his old life, of Earth, of anything really… Just floating along, this tin can became all he knew; time and space just kind of stood still in the periphery. His currently lifeless body was submerged in cryo-crypto-cyano-freeze (or whatever they called it) while he worked off the payments to resuscitate it. His robot body was stiff and unaccommodating, not at all what he’d pictured when he enlisted for the Mars missions to pay off the triple-interest-bearing student loan debts incurred in human form. He could have gone military, but when he signed on for this assignment, bright eyed and bushy-tailed at graduation, he was hoping for something a bit more Captain Kirk or Han Solo or at any rate notably less Wall-E. But it just didn’t pan out that way and now here he was, traveling back and forth on the Mars Voyager, cleaning up space grime. So much debt… so much dirt. He was going to have to have a word with the job placement division at the school once he was done with all of this, assuming that the career guidance counselor who talked him into this was even still there.
It was painfully lonely out here in space. It often seemed that Trent was the only cognitive entity on this vessel, though the computer technically qualified. Trent’s duty was to keep everything clean and tidy so that the computer could do its job efficiently and effectively without being bothered to clear the space grime itself. Apparently that work was beneath it, actually quite literally since it wasn’t hooked into the mechanics needed to engage in such tasks anyway. It was programmed with a single role at hand, getting to and from Mars and conducting the research as requested, and the computer made it abundantly clear that had no time for idle chitchat with the janitorial bottom-feeders working to earn their freedom. It generally ignored Trent unless there was something specific that needed to be attended to. And then it was just “Dust-Buster, do this” or “Dust-Buster do that…”
Sometimes the dust was hard to catch. It settled oddly between spaces, like cracks in sliding doorways and computer keyboards and battery packs and so on. Sometimes it seemed to fabricate places to hide in that weren’t previously obvious. It drilled down in the interstices as if it had some unseen purpose all its own. Trent wondered why there were even so many nooks and crannies for it to hide in since this wasn’t a manned vessel and no actual crew were aboard to use things like keyboards. Hell, those had been outdated for well over a century now – just how old was this spacecraft anyway? No matter, better to just focus on the work. He swept more debris into a containment unit. As he did so, he was sure he heard something, like a tiny almost inaudible severely muffled scream.
He looked into the clear acrylic dome at the dirt. He could sense it looking back at him, waiting. Surely he was imagining things. His mind suddenly reeled to Horton the Elephant declaring, a person’s a person no matter how small. But Dr. Seuss didn’t make any more sense here in space than back on Earth after the last World War had decimated all the oceans and there were no more free trees or clovers for such a speck of dust as Whoville to land on – everything was held tightly under lock and key, blockaded away to be dispensed as the all-controlling government saw fit. Hell, people’s real bodies met pretty much the same fate upon adulthood, at least as far as the masses were concerned anyway, and many lived their entire lives as robots with their human vessels left in catatonic stasis. Trent shook his dark musings off and continued on his one and only real job. But the feeling that the dust was looking at him was still unsettling. In fact the dust wasn’t settling at all, it was swirling and ebbing about the containment unit in cloudy eddies, like some kind of strange iron-red cloud apparition or ghost. It began to take shape. It formed into lips, which parted to speak.
“Hello there mechanical being.”
Trent stared at it quizzically as a long bout of silence passed. The pursed lips seemed to await a response, but from whom?
“I’m talking to you,” it persisted.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t think you had meant to address me,” Trent 2-6000 stammered, “I’m not wholly used to being mechanical. This robot body, it’s different than the one I had back in school… I was still just a boy then; they let us grow up in the system until we age out,” he spoke dreamily, distracted by reflecting on more interesting times.
“Is there someone else here?” the dust piqued hopefully, as if growing bored with conversing with the young janitor and hoping to speak with his superior.
Trent glanced over at the computer, which seemed to be busy compounding equations in its free time, like always. “No,” he replied, “just me.”
“Ok, well… Then, dear mechanical being, would it be possible for you to free me?”
“Wait, what? No, absolutely not,” Trent was taken aback again. “My sole role on this mission is to sweep up the space dirt so that it doesn’t contaminate any of the equipment or settle into places it shouldn’t be. It, um you, must stay contained, as per my orders. It’s out of my hands… er reach.”
“What are you afraid of?” the red cloud quipped as it began to swirl into the shape of a beautiful female face around the mouth that it had already formed, lips plumping and parting slightly. “What, exactly, do you fear that I might do?” it insinuated slyly.
“Ummm, I don’t know,” Trent-2-6000 stared into the acrylic dome at the beautiful half-formed human-ghost face staring back at him. “I was unaware that you could do that, whatever you just did, so the possibilities boggle the mind…”
“I can do a lot more…” the ghost girl interrupted, her voice lilting playfully. “What’s your name robo-boy?”
“That, that’s probably classified information… But it’s Trent. Just Trent,” he stammered. It had seemed like an eternity since he had laid eyes upon a girl, and now he was becoming rather sadly smitten. By… a cloud of dust. He sighed again.
“Well then, Trent Just-Trent. Any chance you could let me out of this box?” The dust smiled coyly.
“I really shouldn’t…”
“My name’s Ayarvenia,” the dust girl interjected. “I’ll make it worth your while…” The apparition winked.
Trent glanced back at the computer, which was still engaged in its own computing. Sigh. “Oh Hell, yeah, I guess… Ay-ur-veenia… Just don’t get into anything you shouldn’t or it’ll be my shiny metal ass on the line,” he said as he released the containment lever and slid the lid off of the dome.
Please return next Sunday for the exciting conclusion to this space opry story.