I'm gratified to learn that there's been some interest in nominating my short story "Radio Free Future," for science fiction's Hugo Award. The story appeared in WMG Publishing's third "Fiction River" anthology, "Time Streams," edited by Dean Wesley Smith. In the interest of getting it out to a wider audience of potential voters and nominators, I'm making it available here for you to read free. If you were a member of last year's World Science Fiction Convention or are registered for this year's convention, I believe you are eligible to nominate. This story is under copyright, and I ask that you not repost it elsewhere, but please feel free to post the link where ever you may feel appropriate.
And of course, if you prefer, you can always read it in the original anthology, available in trade paperback or ebook form from Amazon by clicking the cover picture above. Or you can just take down the information and order it through your favorite local or on-line bookseller.
Be aware, I'm doing this on short notice, and I am posting my original, un-copy edited manuscript here (already checked, and WMG doesn't have a stand-alone file of the edited version available) so forgive the pretty much inevitable typos and glitches.
Enjoy, and thanks for reading!
Enjoy, and thanks for reading!
Radio Free Future
J. Steven York
“Hey,” said the human sized tiger leaning into his field of vision, its voice muffled, “welcome back, sleepy-eyes! The voices in my head said you were about to wake up, and let me say, the voices in my head are rarely wrong.” The tiger made an exaggerated tilt of its head to the right. “Hey! Got a question for you: You know what causality is?”
Looking at the tiger, the man taped to the chair shook his head and immediately regretted it His brain rattled around in his skull as though his head was one massive bruise, which perhaps it was. He tried to reach up and see what the wet, pounding area at the back of his head was about, but being the man taped to the chair, he utterly failed. He tried to scream, to shout in rage, but by this time he was starting to realize he was also the man whose mouth was stuffed full of cloth and taped shut.
The tiger held up a paw. “No, don’t answer right away. Because...” The tiger hesitated, then reached up and yanked its own head off.
“Because,” continued the sweaty male human head thus exposed under the false tiger head which had covered him like a space helmet, “you think you know. Cause and effect. Dink, you knock over that first domino, and --dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-- they start to fall. And you look at all the dominos lined up and you think you know what’s going to happen. Maybe you plan that at the end it sends something flying into the air, or raises a little flag, or maybe it pushes a shiny red button that blows up the world. But maybe those dominoes aren’t going to fall the way you think they’ll fall. And maybe, up the line, somebody has been moving the dominoes...”
Despite the difficulty he was having focusing his eyes, the man taped to the chair raised his head, looked past the man in the tiger suit and tried to access his situation. He did not recognize the room, but many of the furnishings were familiar; the tasteless modern lamps, all chrome and mirrors, the claw-footed side tables in faux cherry wood, the matching armoire hiding a big-screen television full of decadent American programming.
He had not seen them, but he had seen their twins in many other rooms. He was reassured to discover he was still in the hotel, a ski-resort in the mountains of the American west. The plan was still in motion. He had not dreamed it.
The man taped to the chair turned his attention to the man in the tiger suit, desperately trying to figure out what had happened, to figure a way out. The tiger-man, what he could see of him, was an amazingly undistinguished individual.
His skin was slightly swarthy, though chair-man couldn’t tell if it was a condition of birth, or if he simply was a man who enjoyed a generous tan.
He was neither tall nor short, thin nor fat (though it was hard to be sure about this point, given the man’s current attire). His nose was neither narrow nor wide. His hair, a dark, undistinguished brown. There might have been a slight Asian cast to his eyes, or maybe that was just the way he squinted.
He could have been American, or Russian, or Canadian, or Brazilian, or French. His accent was the perfect neutral that American news-presenters and foreign agents of all nations and terrorist organizations strive for.
The man taped to the chair knew that accent well. It was the accent he had worked for months to perfect. The man in the tiger suit was a cipher. A non-entity. The sort of person the man-in-the-chair knew -- James Bond aside -- made the perfect intelligence operative. And that worried the man taped to the chair quite a lot.
The man in the tiger suit looked deep into his eyes, as though he might find some missing car-keys in there. “By now you’re probably looking at me thinking, ‘Is this guy Homeland, or FBI, or CIA, or The-Agency-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name-and-if-it-Did-it-Would-Have-to-Kill-You?’ And you would be wrong on all counts.
“Or maybe you’re wondering, ‘Why the tiger suit?,’ and I can tell you, hot as it is inside this thing I’ve had the same thought myself once or twice! But let me just say, it was the easiest way to trick a team of drunken college football players to lug a couple of hundred-pound manhole covers up onto the roof of a ski resort. Great bunch of guys. One of them is going to run for president one day, and boy is this little incident going to come back to haunt him!”
The man taped to the chair was coming to the realization that his captor was not a spy, not a lackey of the decadent American government, and that realization filled him with an even deeper dread. He knew how to deal with those people, his known adversaries. They were dangerous, but he could manipulate them, mislead them, stall them. The plan would go on without him.
The bomb had been planted, the tamper-proof timer set. The plan was in motion, and nothing could stop it now.
He looked around for a clock, taking further note of his surroundings. He had cased the resort thoroughly in preparation of the plan. This was undoubtedly a “luxury” suite, one of the “party suites” adjoining the event wing that jutted out from the resort hotel’s tower. Given its location, it was intended as much as a place to entertain as a place to sleep.
He examined the chair he was taped to, a heavy wooden arm chair, quite sturdy in its construction based on his experimental tugging and shifting of weight. It was a chair designed to withstand underpaid housemen, drunken sales-managers on holiday, and even drunker rock stars on tour. There would be no breaking it.
No other immediate means of escape presented itself. He would have to bide his time. But that was good. Time worked in his favor now. The longer the fool in the tiger suit talked, the closer he was to fulfilling his mission.
Keep talking, idiot!
Of course, with his mouth taped, there was no way to communicate this desire. That, however, did not seem to be a problem...
“Hey, by now I’ll bet you’re thinking, ‘A guy with voices in his head! Crazy as a loon,’ am I right? But I assure you, there’s a scientific explanation for the whole thing. I just don’t know what it is! But there is one. I’ve got an awesome origin story, if I could just remember it clearly.
“Possibly something to do with secret experiments at Area 51; being abducted and probed -- mental, not anal, you naughty boy -- by a UFO; a secret NSA identity-erasing super-computer-virus; a stealth Volkswagen beetle invisible to police radar; and/or a freak rift in the time-space continuum somehow localized to my brain’s hippocampus.
“Or, maybe somebody just spiked my punch at that Shriner’s convention with some incredibly powerful LSD!” He leaned closer, shielding his mouth with his hand and lowering his voice to a whisper, “Though to be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember being a Shriner!” He leaned back and flashed a self-satisfied smile. “But in any case, there’s a scientific explanation!
“Really, chair-guy, it comes down to the future.” He sat the tiger head down on a coffee table and plopped into a solid but well padded chair that looked to be a twin of the one the man taped to the chair was taped to. The chair had the too-uniform carving and scroll-work of a mass-produced, machine-made piece, the exposed wood stained the color of roasted coffee-beans, cushions upholstered in green leather. The tiger-man drummed his claws on the heavy wooden arms of the chair, but the fuzzy fabric covering his fingers deadened the noise.
The prisoner studied the other chair closely, looking for some hidden weakness that might exist in his own. Other than an appalling lack of fashion-sense, he found none.
“Do you ever think about the future, chair-guy?” He grinned. “Well, of course you do! You were thinking about the future when you set the timer on that bomb.”
The man taped to the chair flinched at the world “bomb,” his eyes hardened by anger and desperation. But he immediately caught himself, hiding his concern, attempting to calm his racing pulse. Doubtless his mysterious jailor was fishing, trying to get a reaction out of him. There was no way he could know for sure there was a bomb. He was simply trying to verify a guess of some kind, or find some clue to the bomb’s location. The man taped to the chair was determined not to assist him.
But if the man in the tiger suit had noticed his reaction, or in any way considered it important, then he was hiding it well. Instead, he just kept talking.
“See, this is the funny thing about the future. People think of it as a place, a fixed point that we’re all marching toward. That’s because we’re all three-dimensional creatures -- most of us anyways. Up and down, forward and back, left and right, that’s all we’ve got. We live in four dimensions, that added one of time, but we can’t control how we move through time, so we mostly ignore it.
“And you know what? That’s okay, because I’m told by the voices in my head, some of the very most reliable voices in my head, that you can’t travel in time. It’s impossible! Time is actually kind of an illusion. Time is just remembering the past and thinking about the future. There’s just the eternal now.
“Time is an illusion of movement, just like it seems like waves at the beach are coming towards you, but mostly the water is just moving up and down and not coming towards you at all. Time is like that wave, and you’re surfing it towards a future that won’t exist until you get there. Mind blowing, huh?
The tiger-man leapt to his feet so suddenly that the man taped to the chair might have also jumped from his seat, had he not been taped to it.
But there was no threat in the action. Instead the tiger man circled around back of the chair and began furiously pacing back and forth across the room, furry orange arms crossed behind him, ratty tail dragging across the carpet, from the mirrored wet-bar on one side, to an over-stuffed sectional couch on the other.
“And here’s where it gets crazy!” He hesitated, seemed to reconsider. “Okay, the train passed crazy-town about three stops ago, but work with me here! See, the future doesn’t know it doesn’t exist! And while you can’t travel through time, it turns out you can communicate through time! I mean, communicating with the future is easy. You do it every time you write in your diary, or leave a note on the refrigerator, or even remember where you planted your bomb. Your own memories are a just a message to future-you! Just like that bomb of yours is a big old greeting card to the future that reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I exploded a bomb, so fuck you!
“Anyway, from what I gather communicating with the past is much harder. It takes a lot of energy, and fancy gizmos, and worst of all, you’ve got to have a compatible receiver, a human brain jiggered in just the right way so it’s like an old-time crystal radio set. And those are darned uncommon. But as it happens,” he pointed a furry talon directly at his own temple, “I’ve got one right here!
“And the crazy thing, or the next crazy thing anyway, is sending a message from the future insures that the particular future it comes from won’t exist. The future changes its past, it ceases to exist, and so these messages are fading out even while they’re sending them, sometimes picked up by a very similar future, which also fades away, only to be replaced by... Well, you get the idea. It’s no wonder I’m pretty much gibbering insane, right? There are only two kinds of futures I hear from, really. The ones too ignorant to know any better, and the ones too desperate not to give it a try! Either way, it messes with your head, listening to alternate realities slide into oblivion a hundred times a day.”
He stopped pacing and turned to face the man taped to the chair, frowning. “Fortunately for me, it’s hard to send a message back in time, because otherwise the voices in my head would never let me get any sleep. See, the future is kind of whiny. Seems like nobody ever rings up my brain to say, ‘Hey, have a nice past, which you are, because we learned about it in fourth-grade history class!’
“Nope, they only bother to call when somebody, maybe the whole world, maybe the whole universe, has some disaster they’re smack in the middle of that’s so dire it can only be fixed in the past. So it’s always, ‘Oh, would you please run over to that genetics lab and stop the flying-monkey invasion from ever happening,’ or ‘Could you just kill that snotty-nosed kid with the GI Joe a little before he grows up to be Space Hitler,’ or ‘Would you stop the invention of ‘Bed-Bug-B-Gone’ spray so that our primitive ancestors won’t be wiped out before we can evolve into a race of sentient insects that can overthrow humankind and turn its own horrible swatters upon it?’”
The tiger-man leaned forward, studying his prisoner’s expression. “Okay, I just made up ‘Space Hitler,’ but the flying monkey invasion was totally a thing, and that last one came from the mutated insectoid race of the atomic wastelands, and I am not a big fan of theirs!”
The man taped to the chair struggled and moaned into his gag. It was tempting to try and call for help, attract attention, but he knew that was the worst thing he could do. Not while the bomb was still ticking, not until the peace talks were underway in the conference-room that was -- he suddenly realized -- just the other side of the wall from the luxury suites!
This insane fool was going to get them both killed!
The man taped to the chair had long been prepared for that possibility though, from the very beginning of the plan, even if he did not welcome it. Oh, he was aligned with the cause, but he was not so fanatical as to desire martyrdom. In fact, he was a bit of a mercenary and stood to collect a rich payment if it could simply get out of this situation alive.
But the one thing he desired more than money, almost more than life, was infamy. He wanted to be in the history books, like the men who had flown those jets into those buildings. They had been idealistic fools, but they would never be forgotten.
“Hey,” said the tiger-man, who was now staring up at the ceiling for some reason, “let me point out some architectural details of interest here.” He suddenly lost interest in the ceiling, and leapt onto a glass coffee table.
The man taped to the chair waited for him to plunge through it, landing in a bloody heap of crazy and fur, but he was disappointed. Hotel furniture was built for abuse.
The man in the tiger suit took his elevated position as an excuse to become more theatrical, waving his furry arms as he talked, and occasionally striking poses while standing on one foot. “This conference wing, built in 1999, is a single story under a peaked roof designed to enhance the chalet ambiance and mitigate snow-loads. It’s spring now, off-season, so the asphalt shingles are completely dry and exposed at the moment.
“The hotel is also about 75% empty right now, which makes it an affordable stop-off for traveling college football teams, the perfect place to skulk around with a bomb in your suitcase, or the perfect out-of-the-way neutral ground for secret peace negotiations.
“But I was talking about the roof! The structure of the roof is strong, of course, but it’s designed to handle distributed loads; that is, a great weight of snow spread out evenly over its surface. An impact by -- say -- a decorative brass ball about the size of a baseball, moving fast enough, that would just punch right through! Fascinating, huh?”
“Just to our west, the wing abuts the original hotel tower, built much earlier for the 1982 International Winter Games. It has fifteen stories of guest rooms topped by a clock tower that extends another fifty feet above the main roof and is topped by a small flat roof and a 25 foot flag pole.
“The clock tower houses elevator and ventilation machinery, plus the clock, which was purchased from the lowest bidder and intended only to last the duration of the games. It operates correctly an average of 210 days a year and is repaired an average of six times annually by a variety of contractors, none of whom have succeeded in keeping it running. As a result, there are a remarkable number of keys to the tower floating around in various places.
“The first floor of the tower includes three bars and two restaurants, a coffee shop that serves a mean corned-beef hash and eggs, and the recently-remodeled Gastronomo, one of those trendy ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ restaurants where food -- and I use the word loosely -- isn’t so much cooked as it is whipped up in a science lab full of beakers, Bunsen burners, flavor-extracts and liquid nitrogen.
“I know, this all seems pretty trivial, but before a fellow like you starts knocking dominos over in a big way, you should really study those dominos carefully. It could be important! It’s all in the details.”
The man in the tiger suit stared up at the ceiling again and frowned. Then he pounced down from the table, grabbed the arm of his prisoner’s chair, and dragged it noisily about four inches to the right. Then he stared up again, tugged the chair another half-inch, and only then seemed satisfied.
“Like that flag-pole up on the tower. There’s an American flag flying up there. That will turn out to be ironic, but to the future, not as important as you might imagine. In fact, nothing much here today is that important to the future, not even that peace conference they’re holding in secret just beyond that wall. In fact, if you’d just had the good taste to leave things be, nothing at all good would have come of it. The two countries in question might have come away hating each other just a little bit more, if that’s even possible, and I know that would probably have suited you just fine.
“Turns out it is very possible though, for a bad result, if you blow up the conference with a bomb and both sides blame each other, and then their neighbors start pointing fingers, and the major powers pick their sides, and everybody starts yelling until they forget what the hell they were yelling about in the first place, and then a couple of rogue states start throwing around their home-made nukes on their home-made ICBMs just because with all the yelling, nobody is paying enough attention to them!”
The tiger-suit guy leaned closer, looking into the trapped man’s eyes. “And you know where this is headed? Straight to the future of mutated,” he mimicked antenna, holding a fuzzy, upraised index finger on each side of his head, “insectoids is where! I’m no fan of theirs, but man-alive, are they big fans of you!
“See, that’s the thing. I can hear the future, but I’m not their puppet. Anybody could potentially figure out how to send a message back in time, even somebody like you, for example! I learned a long time ago to have my own agenda. Sometimes the future tells me to zig, and I zag just for spite!
“Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wouldn’t the future know that? Wouldn’t the future pull a double bluff and tell me to zag when they really wanted me to zig? But in all the time I’ve been listening, the future has never lied to me. I don’t think it even can. I think that for some reason, possibly having to do with quantum mechanics, or international copyright law, or the US Tax code, that only the truth can go back in time. The future can’t lie. Interesting, huh?”
The man taped to the chair struggled. If only there was a clock. The hour, the minute, the second of reckoning must be close now.
And as he felt the terrible anticipation of it, he knew now that he didn’t want to perish; that he would rather live as a hero, or at least a very wealthy fugitive, than die as a martyr. He struggled, twisting his wrists and ankles against the tape, feeling his skin threatening to peel back like a grape, but getting no closer to freedom.
The tiger-man leaned in and studied his face closely, his expression solemn. “I guess you’re wondering what the future says about you, guy-who-I-taped-to-a-chair. See, the fact that I don’t know your name should tell you something. They vaguely remember the explosion, but not the exploder.
“They don’t know your name, or the name of your little outfit of international troublemakers, or in fact, the names of any of the countries involved in your little squabble. In the great scheme of the future, none of you count for crap.
“I had to follow a long trail of clues and future breadcrumbs to track you and your little plot down, because the future barely remembers you at all. In the long-term, people are what’s important. Civilization, culture, that’s what’s important. All your borders and factions and religions are just fractures in the whole that keep breaking the future apart before it can happen.
“Like that bomb of yours!
“Speaking of which, explosions are funny things. A few yards in one direction or another can be the difference between survival and death. Change the shape of the explosive just a little and the force of it becomes directional. Put it between two pieces of heavy metal, like say, a couple of man-hole covers, set things up just right, and the explosion shoots mostly out the side like a circular-saw blade. And the piece of metal on top? Well, that goes sailing hundreds of feet in the air, like somebody tossing a coin at a basketball game!
“So, if you were to put this whole thing up on the very top of a building, like on the top of a clock tower, most of the force would go straight out and hardly damage the building at all. Well, except for that flag pole. That baby would get cut off at the base and go tumbling right over the side of the tower.
The man taped to the chair froze.
What had this fool done with his bomb?
But then he reassured himself that the man in the tiger-suit had done nothing at all. This was just talk. The man taped to the chair had built the bomb himself. Once it had been placed in the suspended ceiling over the conference room and activated, it couldn’t be tampered with. The timer could not be stopped, and there were sensors and traps so that any effort to move or disarm the bomb would have set it off.
No, it had to be right where he had placed it, and it soon would be going off. The conference was already going on, he was sure. He thought of the idealistic fools, speaking their empty words, chasing their impossible dream that any kind of peace could be possible between their peoples...
He looked at the tiger-suit-man. The man in the tiger suit looked back, and he was smiling just a little, his eyes narrowed, as though enjoying a secret joke.
“Did you know, if you show up at the kitchen door of Gastronomo with a Thermos in one hand and a credit card in the other, they’ll happily fill that baby up with liquid nitrogen for you? Three hundred and twenty degrees below zero. Cold enough to send even a tamper-proof bomb into suspended-animation sleepy-time for a little while.
“Long enough for a fifteen floor elevator ride. Long enough to open a door with a key and to climb a couple flights of stairs.
“Long enough to slide the frosty little death-machine into the space you’re arranged between two man-hole covers you’ve set up sitting on top of a ventilation unit.”
The tiger man leaned in close, stared into his prisoner’s eyes. The smile was gone, the tiger-man’s face somehow now like a real tiger, contemplating its prey, getting ready to strike.
“I can’t kill you, you know. No matter how fun that might be. I kill you, or even turn you over to the authorities, who I’m sure would love to see you, and you become a martyr, and others will be inspired to copy you, and instead of making this problem go away, I just make it worse. And I can’t let you go, because you’ll just try something like this again.
“No, I’ve just got to let events run their course. Let the dominos you’ve set in motion fall where they may.” He looked up again. The tiger-man seemed very interested in the ceiling. “I can’t let you have an infamous death. No sir. Not even an anonymous one. I’m going to let you come undone. I’m going to let you scrub yourself completely out of history, except maybe as a joke. The only death you can have now is a ridiculous one.”
He looked up again. “Don’t worry. The fifty foot flag pole that crashes through the ceiling and stabs through your chest won’t have time to kill you. It will just pin you down for the man-hole cover that slices off your head.”
From somewhere far above came a chest-thumping report, like the sound of distant cannon fire.
“Gotta go. Dominoes are falling and the future is calling. Never a dull moment.”
The tiger-man grabbed his tiger head, its cloth features happy and smiling, placed it back over his own, then started to slip out of the room. But half-way through the door, he hesitated. The tiger-man turned back, his real face unseeable, unknowable.
Overhead, something whistled through the air.
The tiger-man’s voice was muffled by the costume, as though he was already far away. “You know what causality is?
“Causality is a bitch.”